Par for the course? Environmental challenges on the golf course


Have you ever played golf?

Have you ever had trash thrown in your face while playing golf?

It was a beautiful sunny day on the golf course in Virginia when I decided to share my idea of becoming an environmental advocate within the golf industry. I was proud to be playing with recycled golf balls, picking up used wooden golf tees from each hole, bringing my own water bottle and educating anyone I played golf with about the benefits of being more sustainable on and off the course.

What followed next was a proverbial slap in the face — or more like the trigger I needed to start pursuing this mission full time.

A well-respected golf professional overheard me say, "I want to help green the golf industry."

He looked at me with a precarious grin and threw a piece of trash into the air, saying "Here's what I think about greening golf!"

As the trash blew towards me, I couldn't help but feel disrespected. It was the first time I had shared my idea with someone in management at a golf course. In addition, he went on for the rest of the round, making fun of my idea and recycled golf balls.

Throughout my career as a professional golfer, I have worked as an assistant golf professional, mentee to superintendents, golf instructor and operations crew member. I have combined experience that has allowed me to understand how the industry runs, and being a female in a male-dominated sport has allowed me to see the industry from a different perspective from most.

While working as an assistant golf professional, I experienced many times when being a female didn’t help me. Women were not allowed in a specific area of the dining hall, weren’t allowed to tee off with the men and were only allowed to play golf after a certain time in the day, because the men believed they would slow their rounds down.

Such behaviors and attitudes can be found throughout the golf industry, and need to be shifted. I have witnessed firsthand the prejudice that goes along with being a minority within golf, and the barriers to entry that people from diverse economic and social backgrounds face. Golf is making strides to incorporate programs that address these issues; however, much more can be done.

Being an environmental activist or advocate has nothing to do with the fact that a single golf course uses an average of 312,000 gallons of water per day, equivalent to the amount of water used by 2.8 million people per day, according to the EPA.

I spend quite a bit of time in San Francisco and the Los Angeles area, and understand far too well that the drought situation is a real problem. Recently, as I flew over California and landed in L.A., I noticed the only green space for miles was a golf course. It seems backwards that people are being fined for watering their lawns while the golf industry continues to enjoy lush greenscapes.

As an avid supporter of golf and sustainability, I am naturally conflicted about this.

Like most multi-billion-dollar industries, the sport of golf is afraid of change, as the head professional ably demonstrated.

I often wonder how an industry that drives over $70 billion into the U.S. economy, raises more charitable donations than professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey combined and employs more than 2 million people doesn't focus just as heavily on its environmental and social impact.

The golf industry itself has a reach unlike many sports and has the ability to create environmentally and socially adept ambassadors who could provide value and reach throughout their networks.

As I build a sustainability consulting business that will focus on the golf industry, I am eager to see how golf will step up its game. It’s one thing to announce that the industry is focusing on sustainability, and another to understand what that encompasses and how to truly drive long-term initiatives that take the industry from compliance to leadership.

Sustainability is by far the tool that will measure the success of golf for future generations, local communities, the environment and our global economy.