What does golf want to stand for?

By RNL

The widely-held view that golf is an elitist game that wastefully consumes an excessive share of the earth’s natural resources is one of the greatest barriers to the game’s growth. Here, Jonathan Smith, CEO of GCA’s environmental partner, the Golf Environment Organisation, along with other commentators, presents an objective, strategic appraisal of golf’s path towards a more sustainable future.

Envisage a future where golf is internationally recognised for enhancing environmental quality and human wellbeing. No longer haunted by the spectre of environmental damage and social exclusion. Every golf facility, both new and existing – unequivocally valued as social, economic and environmental assets. Every golf event a showcase for international leadership, and a platform for sporting superstars to speak credibly about the environment and inspire the next generation.

Leaving behind the recurring media references to a displaced agricultural community here, or destruction of an ancient sand dune there. Each attack wounding the sector before its reputation has time to heal over.

Imagine how much more confidently the sport could be marketed, if it were free from damaging criticism. Creating new opportunities for it to grow. Not shackled to the narrow, media cemented perception of government officials, environmental and community groups.

Gordon Shepherd, Director of International Policy, WWF International puts it simply: “Golf can, and indeed should become the leading sport on environmental and social issues.”

This is distinctly possible. It is within grasp, and it does not require a revolution. What it does require is some honest and objective self-reflection, recognition that the single most important step the sector can take is to open its mind, get positively engaged and seek to exceed – not to fend off – people’s expectations. Backed by some well resourced, carefully targeted, and coordinated activities that in the grand scheme of things would stack up to be incredibly high value investment to the industry.

So, what kind of cohesive actions should the sector be focused on and united behind? This is where it get’s a bit more complicated, but here are a few starters:

First of all there’s science. What do we know about golf’s social and environmental impacts? Let’s get the scientific community working cohesively alongside golf to a single research and development agenda, to identify the further research that is required, but perhaps more importantly to collate and disseminate the large amount of existing information in an easily accessible manner. At present who is coordinating such action on an international level?

Secondly, there’s the small matter of industry performance. What is it that the golf sector needs to do to improve? What are the focus areas and what tools are required?

Well, first and foremost, the development of resource intensive, environmentally degrading new golf facilities, tainted by social inequity, must cease. This is golf’s real Achilles heel, fuelling almost all anti-golf sentiment. All new golf projects must thoroughly address legitimate social and environmental concerns, and be able to demonstrate an iterative planning and design process through which avoidable negatives are replaced by positive outcomes. Achieving this requires balanced land use planning, informed development control decision making, accompanied by voluntary commitment on the part of investors, developers and their project teams. None of which is a negative, none of which ties the hands of masterplanners and golf designers, none of which halts the growth of the game. A balanced, opportunities led approach on all sides has the potential for golf, almost anywhere, to succeed on all counts.

The implication for course designers is that they are absolutely central to what is achieved. Without overstating it, future golfing environments, and to a considerable extent golf ’s reputation, is in their hands. Each and every designer using their creative flair to convince developers of the business case for low resource, ecologically rich, stunning golf landscapes that people will simply want to come back and play time and time again. Underpinned by strong policy and guidance from their professional Institutes.

As one high level environmental observer, John Finisdore of the World Resources Institute puts it: “Of all sports, golf has perhaps the closest affinity with the environment as courses not only impact the environment but depend on it. The industry is increasingly aware that designing courses with the environment in mind can have positive affects on the bottom line.”

Of course, the buck does not stop with the designer. Environmental and social responsibility is a common denominator and every component of the industry has to play its part.

Take education for example. To what extent are practitioner education and professional development programmes underpinned by accurate and well targeted knowledge and guidance on environmental and social issues? What more could be done and how can any deficiencies be filled. I am sure that all practitioner associations would agree that a modern day professional should have sound knowledge in these areas. And what about guidance and support? How well are people being equipped with the ideas, methodological approaches and tools they need in order to improve their performance?

Based on good scientific understanding and supported by a forward looking strategy to improve standards, golf is superbly positioned to communicate all that it stands for.

Communication as they say, is key. By supporting the right recognition and certification programmes, all golf facilities can confidently tell a credible and trusted environmental story. Green golf events can harness their media power to showcase sustainability week in week out. And, the icing on the communications cake, the thing for which golf could be most highly valued; high profile professional sports people raising public awareness, catalysing environmental projects, showing concern and leadership and inspiring the next generation.

The opportunity is not lost on influential figures in government, such as Timo Makela, director of sustainability at the European Commission’s DG Environment: “Golf events can be high profile examples of sustainability, bringing to communities a balance of economic, social and environmental benefits. If they can achieve this, and help to promote this ethic across sport, tourism and business, then golf will rightly prove itself to be a valuable agent for sustainability across society.”

The opportunity is also not lost in golf. Not that long ago, the debate’s defining headline statements included: “don’t blame us”, “we’re better than agriculture”, “we’re good for the economy”, “golf courses aren’t power stations or landfills”… and other protectionist and ultimately dead-end arguments.

But to golf’s credit, the understanding has increased markedly in recent years. In the conference circuit corridors, people from all backgrounds holding conversations centred on the ‘S’ word. Coffee time ringing out with new phraseology “long-term policy”; “continual improvement”; “partnership”; “baseline data”; “objective appraisal”. Terminology that implies that golf is in fact gaining a genuine understanding of what, in the twenty-first century, constitutes a credible environmental movement.

There are however, still clarion calls to the past. A common one is “lobbying,” in our view an outdated and ultimately hamstrung approach attempting to influence people who are pretty streetwise. Golf has so much more to offer government and society than simply lobbying for legitimacy.

There is simply no room for defensiveness over this issue. It is far too large, too powerful and frankly too important to dismiss with arm waving. Golf is legitimate. Fifty-nine million players worldwide, over 32,000 courses, and hundreds of televised events represent a fantastic sport, recreation and economic generator.

But one thing golf is not is an island. It is not immune from public opinion, nor from the government regulation or political pressure that opinion drives. Golf is connected. Economically – to global forces that affect its growth, its profitability, people’s return on investment. Connected to society – through the small number of avid players who love the game, across the larger numbers who spectate and observe, and out into the masses who know very little about it other than perhaps the bad news they are fed, and a narrow impression of what it stands for. Connected to the environment – perhaps uniquely so for a sport. Entwined with ecological processes, landscape quality and the use of natural resources.

Recognising this is key if the industry is to anticipate, and adapt to, the impacts that economic, social and environmental changes may bring. Just think water and pesticides as two indicators. For our part, GEO is committed to working with the industry in raising standards, achieving tangible outcomes and objectively appraising performance. We believe in a positive future for golf, where the game is widely valued for the way it stimulates economies, offers healthy recreation and enriches the increasingly fragile and vulnerable ecosystems of the planet.

My children often remind me how the next generation are interested and accepting – ready to see leadership on such matters, and influenced in their consumer decision making towards things that are inherently good.

Perhaps this, above any other driver, will be the thing that motivates golf to continue driving the environmental movement that is now well under way.

This article first appeared in issue 16 of Golf Course Architecture, published April 2009.

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