By Aubrey McCormick & Andrew Szunyog
Sports leagues are seeing the impacts and the surge of climate-responsible athletes using their platforms to promote positive environmental and social impact — it’s something for the history books.
The golf industry, for one, is increasing its efforts to promote environmental sustainability and marketing to the general public its desire to embrace a more diverse demographic. Professional golfers have started speaking out about the changing climate, leading to some corporate sponsors rethinking strategies and how they can better align.
For many professional athletes, it’s no longer enough to represent a brand without purpose. The same can be said for consumers. People want to engage with companies, brands and industries that represent their values.
Over the last few years, the golf industry has made strides towards being more “sustainable,” but is it enough?
According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, “climate change is real and human activities are the main cause.” The future is net-zero, and re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement should be seen as a signal to step up and act faster than ever before. Nearly every country in the world, including the U.S., has agreed to voluntarily lower their carbon emissions, report progress and implementation efforts to show transparency.
In the U.S. alone, 2 million acres of land are used for golf courses. As the population grows, we may see more demand for this land to be used for agriculture, parks and real estate.
The UN Sports for Climate Action Framework aims to unite the global sports community to combat climate change through “commitments and partnerships according to verified standards including measuring, reducing and reporting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.” Currently, five golf organizations have joined: the United States Golf Association (USGA); Waste Management Phoenix Open; The International Golf Federation; World Minigolf Federation; and Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore.
Golf is making strides both on social and environmental impact. Internationally, the Golf Environment Organization (GEO) uses its OnCourse program to help facilities, tournaments and golf course developments meet strict voluntary standards of sustainability. GEO’s influence is found around the world with partnerships spanning over 60 countries, including its new partnership with the Saudi Golf Federation, which is implementing GEO’s current sustainability strategy.
New golf course developments in Asia, the Middle East and Africa are incorporating sustainability into the design and implementation phases of their projects. Particularly, Laguna Lăng Cô Golf Course and Resort in Vietnam has developed a regenerative model with a 17-acre rice field that runs throughout the property that yielded a 28-ton crop in 2020. As one of three golf courses in the world to be EarthCheck-certified, it is empowering employees to support the local community and protect the environment.
In the U.S., the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) just completed its three-year plan to establish Environmental Best Management Practices for all 50 states. In professional golf, several PGA Tour tournaments are leading the way to decrease their carbon footprints by becoming GEO-certified events. Led by the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the LPGA’s Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, these high-profile events are the PGA’s platform to broadly engage local communities and fans while assessing and reporting the true impact their tournaments have on local ecosystems.
Nonprofit organizations such as the National Links Trust, recent bid winners to take over operations of Washington, D.C.’s three public golf courses, are dedicated to protecting affordable municipal golf courses, understanding the positive impact they have on local communities.
Issues of diversity and inclusion in the game are garnering more attention as investments are made in supporting golf programs managed by historically Black colleges and universities. Of particular note are the establishment of Howard University’s men’s and women’s golf teams by Steph Curry and “Capital One’s The Match: Champions for Change,” an event featuring Charles Barkley and Phil Mickelson that raised $6.4 million.
LPGA professional and two-time major champion Suzann Pettersen has emerged as a leading golf sustainability spokesperson, becoming the first professional golfer to openly endorse and partner with the GEO Foundation to establish new levels of awareness and action.
Said Pettersen at the 2020 Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, “As a mother of a young child, it is incredible how concerned you become over the future of the planet, its biodiversity, air quality and climate. These things are absolutely vital to the health and wellbeing of future generations, so we all need to do our best to make things better.”
According to the National Golf Foundation 2019 Industry Report, there are about 15,000 golf facilities and 24 million golfers. This is equivalent to around one in every nine Americans playing some form of golf. The industry has significant reach and an opportunity to lead by example and align to the world’s global emission goals.
In the U.S. alone, 2 million acres of land are used for golf courses. As the population grows, we may see more demand for this land to be used for agriculture, parks and real estate. Subsequently, millennials and Gen Z individuals will become the majority of the population. As these generations mature, environmental transparency and carbon impact data, among many other sustainability-focused initiatives, will become the standard.
So, what’s next?
We have some ideas on how the golf industry can join the green sports movement and take action.
The Golf Channel should join the U.N. Sports for Climate Action Initiative. If the Golf Channel were to become the first major American sports broadcasting network to sign onto this framework, the move would be a signifier of the golf industry’s recognition of its environmental impact beyond golf course development and tournament operations and show leadership in sustainable broadcasting and messaging.
We need more sustainability commitments from golf equipment manufacturers. Incredible amounts of money are spent every year on R&D as top golf equipment manufacturers compete for consumer dollars. Implementation of transparent, ethical and sustainable practices into their supply and value chains would increase accountability and responsible sourcing of inputs, report true emissions impact and expose gaps where current sustainable initiatives can increase efficiencies. If Amazon, Waste Management (and any other Fortune 500 company) can do it, then certainly the top manufacturers such as Titleist, TaylorMade and Ping Karsten Group can, too.
The PGA of America should introduce a sustainability curriculum to its member certification process. With over 26,000 members around the globe, PGA golf professionals are the lifeblood of the golf industry and serve as the industry’s experts. Giving them the tools to redesign systems to be more sustainable, innovative and regenerative would generate significant ROI opportunities while adding value to the profession and meeting global emission reduction goals.
We’d love to see broad implementation of sustainable operations across professional tournament golf. The select few professional golf tournaments that have committed to zero-waste and emission goals have provided a blueprint for how to conduct largescale tournaments in harmony with local communities. However, as the sponsorship dollars driving Corporate America’s investment into professional golf tournaments shift focus to include social and environmental accountability, will the managers and operators of golf tournaments be prepared to answer the call? A tremendous opportunity to activate climate action awareness campaigns awaits as fans and sponsors begin to return to the course to watch the game’s greats.
Federal legislation should help cities reinvest and retrofit existing municipal and public golf courses. In an effort to build back better, include city-owned golf facilities in any legislation that calls for grants, policies or loans that make them more accessible, inclusive and able to incorporate renewable systems. Investment in energy efficiency, water reclamation and irrigation systems, solar technology and alternative agricultural uses of unused space present golf courses as living laboratories for regenerative and circular urban ecosystems. Imagine if golf courses could grow enough food to feed an afterschool program or provide enough energy to power a homeless shelter.
The time is now.