With the leaders of 200-plus countries represented in Glasgow for the biennial COP26 UN Environment Conference, some 50-miles away on the east coast of Scotland – in two towns synonymous with the sport – golf’s irreversible push for a greener future has been gathering momentum now for a decade and more.
But, with under 500 of the world’s near 40,000 golf clubs and courses currently engaged outside the USA and a thousand more inside golf’s most prolific market, it’s clear there is much to do, and, with a mountain to climb, India is very much starting out in the foothills.
Cynics might say that while politicians and diplomats attending yet another worldwide environmental wingding in Scotland this month will generate more heat than light, perhaps enough hot air propagated by some 30,000 delegates to power the planet for an aeon.
In truth, in their own inimitable way – there is quite probably enough evidence, rising sea levels, melting ice-caps, searing temperatures, forest fires, fearful floods and calamitous climate events, and alarm bells ringing loudly that Planet Earth is in serious trouble -delegates at COP26, pressured and lobbied by activists like teenage Swedish eco-warrior Greta Thunberg will feel obliged to agree a global ‘Green’ blueprint to at least slow the impending emergency and put a plan in place to mitigate, if not solve, the predicted climate cataclysm.
But, like most, deep-seated, overarching dilemmas confronting humankind and its existence, whilst big-picture, blue-sky strategic pronouncements are all well and good, the bulk of the practical progress in making meaningful and beneficial change comes at local level, people and places taking small steps, individual and collective action in their own communities.
Sport is an ever-expanding global phenomenon, and with a burgeoning carbon footprint to match, and, within the world of sport, the game of golf is a relatively small but important cog in the wheel, with an estimated 75-million regular players participating worldwide on – according to the R&A -some 38,864 golf courses in 209 of the world’s 249 recognised countries.
And, despite the widely-held notion that, given golf is played across green and pleasant lands, tree-lined fairways, manicured greens, shimmering lakes and burbling brooks, wildlife sharing the links with golfers; as a game, it must therefore enjoy a very positive sustainability record.
At least until the advent of the new Millennium, by which time phrases like ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Global Warming,’ were entering the lexicon of life, and, to its credit, golf took a long, hard look at itself, and didn’t entirely like what it saw.
Intensive use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, excessive use of water, inefficient energy use, reliance on fossil fuels and deeply damaging ‘land grabs,’ mostly in third world countries seeking to establish a valuable golf-driven tourism industry, many big name players jumping on the bandwagon, designing eponymous golf courses on behalf of avaricious developers, energy intensive hotels and gas-guzzling aircraft taking a new generation of global golf tourists to far-flung corners of the earth.
The first organisation to not only recognise the need for golf to go greener, but also to put in place programmes for club and course managers / operators and their course superintendents as well as designers and developers of new courses was the USA-based Audubon Society, which in the mid-1990s set up the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses, which to this day has enrolled thousands of facilities – mostly in the USA – administering the ground-breaking Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses.
But, at the beginning of 2006, Scotsman Jonathan Smith, a keen golfer himself endured an enforced career change and took a giant a leap of faith; fearing an impending climate emergency and a need for the industry that had sustained his early career established the not-for-profit Golf Environment Organisation (GEO), subsequently re-named the GEO Foundation for Sustainability in and Through Golf.
16-year-later, Smith remains the Founder and Executive Director to this day and golf’s environmental landscape has changed significantly.
Those early days were hand-to-mouth, working out of a converted military Nissan Hut barely a three-wood from the citadel of golf, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, aka Muirfield, Smith ploughed a lone furrow, garnering vital financial and organisational support from the likes of the European Tour and commercial sponsors such as UPS and Rolex keen to underline their environmental ambitions.
Smith was joined three-years-later by ex-Microsoft Strategic Relations executive, expatriate American Kelli Jerome, the pair slowly building golf industry relationships, partnerships and, crucially, an independent and verifiable scientifically-based benchmarking programme, to enable clubs, courses and even tournaments to reduce their carbon footprint, and even save money along the way.
Between them – bolting-on and borrowing specific expertise as and when required – Smith and Jerome established the world’s first online golf ecolabeling system, GEO OnCourse™ the starting point and development programme towards GEO Certified™, now the recognised global gold standard for best practice in sustainable golf course operations.
Smith reflected, “Open to any facility, anywhere, GEO Certification provided a platform for golf managers to represent responsible environmental management in a simple and structured manner, receive independent verification and ultimately go on to achieve GEO’s seal of approval,” adding, “One of the most significant breakthroughs along the way was that we were able to evidentially demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, sustainable golf was not a cost or an expense, but an investment and offered long-term operational savings, a major driver to encourage designers, operators and superintendents / greenkeepers to buy-into the our programmes.”
Moving to more salubrious surroundings in North Berwick in the heart of Scotland’s Golf Coast, surrounded by no fewer than 21 courses within a 15-mile radius, Smith and Jerome have been tireless in taking their ‘Green Golf’ message to clubs, courses, conferences and events all over the world, spreading the word and driving the game towards a more sustainable future.
Back in the early days, with the R&A recognising and developing an environmental programme of its own, tensions existed, the two organisations shadow boxing, potential rivals collaborating uncomfortably, whilst remaining distinct, but, almost a generation on, the pair work hand in glove, with golf – and its environments – the winner.
Today, the two are more relaxed bedfellows, collaborating comfortably where appropriate, ploughing their own furrow when not, the R&A concentrating on the ‘big picture’ and ensuring its portfolio of championships such as the Open and the Women’s British Open head as close to zero carbon as is practicable, leaving the GEO Foundation to carry out the heavy lifting of specification, inspection and certification.
Jonathan Smith, Founder and Executive Director, GEO Foundation said, “The world is facing serious social, ecological and climate challenges, and there is a powerful sense of urgency to address these. The expectation is that everyone should play their part, from individuals to companies to entire sectors. A large, influential and high-profile global sport such as golf has a tremendous opportunity, and responsibility to step forward.”
Indefatigable and undeterred from frequent bumps in the road, Smith is as driven and passionate about golf and its environmental obligations and opportunities as ever.
“Our future generations need golf to redouble its efforts to foster nature, conserve resources, strive for net-zero emissions and strengthen communities. The good news is that this is almost entirely a win-win for a land and community-based sport, where sustainability, great golf and vibrant business are synonymous.”
Meanwhile, Phil Anderton, Chief Development Officer at the R&A commented, “One of the key issues is the golf industry recognising that the risks of not acting now to tackle the issues created by climate change and legislation will hinder the sport in the years to come. Dealing with resource shortages and the impact of flooding, drought and coastal erosion need to be addressed now.
“That is why the R&A is also pursuing Golf Course 2030 to work with partners in the industry to find practical solutions and to encourage facilities to make the changes they can make now,” he added, concluding, “The desire and action for a more sustainable sport is taking place right across golf, including professional tours and tournaments.”
Meanwhile, as the world at large and the game of golf specifically emerging, financially battered and bruised from lockdown, reports are forecasting that the global golf tourism market could grow by as much as US$41-billion between 2021 – 2025.
Combining greenhouse gas emissions, energy, land and water use, the impacts of national, regional and international golf tourism, already pervasive look certain to be exacerbated, yet, despite this being a considerable slice of golf’s carbon footprint, it is an issue GEO seems unwilling or unable to address.
For its part, Ireland – north and south – the game’s relationship – in a formal sense – with the environment could be considered sketchy, with only 26 clubs and courses actively engaged with GEO, including Royal Portrush, whose GEO Certified™ status clearly did no harm when seeking a place` on the R&A’s Open Championship roster.
Indeed, speaking at the County Antrim course during the 2019 Open, a source within the R&A said, “Obviously there were hurdles to overcome with Royal Portrush’s initiative, especially in terms of logistics and crowd capacities, but the course itself was never in doubt in as much as it presents supreme test of golf for the world’s leading players.
“However, the fact that Royal Portrush has been consistently GEO Certified since 2015 and that status reconfirmed ahead of The Open, in keeping with all our Open Championship venues was a significant factor in bringing the event to Northern Ireland.”
And, with the Open Championship, the world’s oldest and most prestigious tournament returning to the Antrim coast in 2025, retaining the highest level of environmental accreditation has clearly paid dividends.
Says Graeme Beatt, Course Manager at Royal Portrush Golf Club, “We as a club and as a team realise that we are responsible for a precious diverse piece of land, and this is paramount in planning of future development.
He adds, “We are constantly striving to improve areas of the business whether it be through changes to the course, the way we manage, or reduction in waste and involvement with the local community.”
But with less than 5% of the near 500 golf clubs and courses on the island of Ireland currently engaged with the game’s leading environmental authority, Ireland, with just 26 courses on the GEO radar, is far behind mainland European countries such as France (35), Belgium (36), Italy (40), Switzerland (41) and Sweden with 108 golf facilities either GEO OnCourse™ or GEO Certified™ there remains a huge amount to be done.
Indeed, with next-gen golfers certain to emerge from a generation much more environmentally aware and astute, getting and keeping golf green – and demonstrably so -may well be an imperative, go green or risk withering on the vine a clear message to Ireland’s golf sector.