Golf's Future in a Thirsty World

If the golf industry's top concern is attracting enough players to grow the game, finding enough water to grow the grass at the nation's 16,000 courses runs a close second in terms of priority. As a new report from the National Golf Course Owners Association finds, the industry needs to act quickly to address the issue of water supply and conservation or it will be left vulnerable to the dictates of lawmakers, local municipalities and environmentalists.

"If, as many observers suggest, water is the oil of the new millennium, then golf faces a long and difficult struggle to protect its share," according to the report, which was developed by the NGCOA after interviews with a number of water experts inside and outside the golf industry. The report goes on to say: "How the industry, historically splintered and new to large-scale campaigning, will fare in that climate is anything but clear. What is apparent . . . is a sense that for the game to do nothing is to risk everything."

NGCOA members can download the complete report (Troubled Waters: Golf's Future in a Thirsty World) beginning October 15 without charge from NGCOA; the report's executive summary also will be available free on the site to members and non-members after that date.

There is an urgent need for the golf industry to act, according to Dr. Bob Carrow, a University of Georgia professor and water conservation expert. "The immediate question is whether golf can get its act together soon enough and astutely enough to shape its fate or whether regulators will do so first." Carrow adds that "the window of opportunity for golf to get in ahead of stringent, potentially damaging regulation is closing."

The water issue affects everyone associated with the game and the business of golf, according to the report. Furthermore, to avoid a public backlash from those who believe golf is not a good steward of the environment, golf needs to convince a cross section of stakeholders and influencers of the benefits the industry provides.

"Golf will need to present a sound scientific case that its water use is clean and efficient. It will need to underpin that case with the economic rationale that [it] is an industry that delivers a $76 billion annual bounty ." the report states.

The report goes on to say that golf's position needs to be communicated to scientists, politicians and the public and "balanced with the ethical consideration that at the end of the day there are things in the life of a community more important than a game."

As Clark Throssell, Ph.D., director of research for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, says: "To date, water's largely been seen as an agronomic issue, but now . . . everybody needs to step up and be part of the dialogue, even the golfer."

While the report paints an urgent situation with serious consequences, the water issue also could have a positive "galvanizing" effect for the industry, NGCOA CEO Mike Hughes says. "Water presents a huge challenge, but also an opportunity for the industry to come together and spell out the economic, environmental and social benefits that golf's water use provides."

The NGCOA report is expected to complement the GCSAA's survey of golf course superintendents regarding water use and conservation. Results of the GCSAA survey, underwritten by the association's philanthropic organization, the Environmental Institute for Golf, are expected to be released later in 2008.

Along with property taxes and increasing revenues, water is one of three strategic issues (along with increasing revenues and property taxes) the NGCOA is examining in 2008 and '09 through reports, webinars, its Annual Conference and editorial coverage in Golf Businessmagazine.