Stick to the Politics Bill

By: Jeff Shelley

This is an open letter to Bill Maher, who trashed golf during his closing comments in his August 17 "Real Time" program on HBO.

I like Maher - still do, in fact - but he was full of crap with these glib comments about a game - and an industry - he obviously knows nothing about. (I'd like to use a four-letter word that starts with an "S" to describe what Maher was full of in this instance, a word that's quite acceptable on his show but not on this family-friendly website.)

In talking about Barack Obama's controversial health-plan makeover, Maher implied that the president's waffling on the plan due to public outcry might indicate that our Commander in Chief was slipping to the right. After all, Obama has been seen on several golf courses in recent months, so he must be becoming a WASPish wonk because he's playing golf, a game Maher apparently feels is a Caucasian-heavy bastion of the rich and conservative.

Maher then went on to question Obama's participation in a sport that so blatantly defiles the environment, citing the "thousands of gallons" of water needed to irrigate a single course in Palm Springs, enough to slake the thirsts of four households for a year. In his zealous depiction of a sport he must be so clearly bad at, Maher's face was turning red during this portion of his tirade-monologue.

Mine certainly was, both from anger and embarrassment for such a normally erudite person. While I often tend to agree with Maher's viewpoints, and found his "Religulous" movie hilariously spot-on, the dude was way off base during his two-minute rant about golf. This simple-minded, stereotypical depiction of the game - especially from such a notorious skeptic as Maher - smelled of the same bombastic dogma he finds odious and is so adept at mocking.

Bill, if only you'd have contacted someone like me to give you some decent data before going off the deep end about golf. Here you go big boy, better late than never.

Water Usage

American golf courses are among the most efficient users of irrigation water on the planet. After all, irrigation of turf grass requires optimizing the use of water so that this resource can be available for another day. Either that or the course will die. Golf course superintendents, with help from computerized irrigation systems equipped with individual weather stations (which allow pinpoint control over each sprinkler head, 1,500 for the average course) and low-flow plumbing, ensure proper utilization of each precious drop of H2O.

Though there are some losses from evaporation and runoff, irrigation water used on golf courses also replenishes groundwater, a much overlooked benefit. Indeed, golf turf is one of nature's best filters, making the water that enters subterranean aquifers even purer than when it first graced a fairway.

As for your comment about the rampant waste of irrigation water in Palm Springs, most Southwest states have rules that restrict how many acres of golf turf can be irrigated. For example, though a course in Arizona may span a total of 150 acres, less than 70 acres are planted with turf. Indeed, many courses in the desert Southwest are voluntarily replacing grass with xerothermic plant species to minimize water usage. Thousands of courses around the U.S. also don't irrigate out-of-play areas.

Additionally, many courses throughout this part of the country - and elsewhere for that matter - are irrigated by treated wastewater and not the same water sources freely tapped by homeowners. Many ponds on golf courses are actually storage basins for treated effluent and are connected directly to specially built irrigation systems, thus precluding the need for any freshwater.

So while neighbor Joe can run his sprinklers carte blanche, with excess water often cascading down driveways, over sidewalks and into storm drains, golf courses impose much stricter controls to ensure efficient irrigation.

Plants & Animals

Golf courses serve as a haven for plants and animals of all sorts. They provide critical elements of habitat for many species, including amphibians, fish, small mammals, birds, insects and bigger beasts. Courses also contain buffer strips to protect wetlands and ensure the protection of natural resources while preserving wildlife for future generations.

Many golf course superintendents have taken it upon themselves to restore streams and rebuilt riparian areas to enhance and re-attract fish species. In Bellevue, Wash., Steve Kealy - the superintendent at Glendale Country Club, his staff and volunteers restored the Chinook salmon runs in Kelsey Creek, which runs through the course. Where previously there were only a few of these magnificent fish returning inland to spawn, primarily due to overdevelopment around Glendale, they now fill this little stream every year. Kealy also frequently tests the creek to make sure no golf course chemicals find their way into it.

Hundreds of courses belong to Audubon International. Founded in 1996, the organization, which now has golf course members across the U.S., provides owners and staff with the education and assistance needed to responsibly manage land, water, wildlife and natural resources. The group works not only with the golf industry, but with other entities as well.

Among its core beliefs: to maintain healthy and functioning ecosystems that protect watersheds; promote biodiversity; find a sustainable balance among environmental, economic, and social systems; and create partnerships with golf courses to better environmental decision-making and improve the quality of human and natural communities.

The Golf & the Environment initiative is a partnership of the United States Golf Association, the PGA of America and Audubon International. By their very nature, golf courses provide significant natural areas that benefit people and wildlife in urbanized communities across North America. Though golf is often ostracized for its use of chemicals, water and other resources to maintain verdant fairways and greens, courses now offer pleasant places to play while protecting drinking water; improving the water quality of lakes, streams and rivers; support a variety of plants and wildlife; and protect our environment for future generations.


In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crafted rules that dictate how golf courses look and play. Many pesticides used before that date to assist with turf conditioning are now banned for use on golf courses, though millions of homeowners face no such restrictions with many of these same herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and insidious chemicals.

Green Space

Golf courses provide valuable green space. Thanks to these untrammeled areas, particularly in urban settings, expanses of golf turf help cool city air through transpiration and evaporation. These properties filter and cleanse water, recharge groundwater and act as a sponge to help prevent flooding, minimizing the need for expensive flood-control structures. (Impervious cover from development, e.g. pavement and buildings, increases flooding and drains polluted runoff from roads and other places to water bodies, degrading water quality and increasing drinking water-treatment costs.)

Golf fairways also allow wildlife to travel between nesting and foraging areas. These natural lands improve air quality, filtering pollutants and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions through carbon sequestration.


The majority of golfers walk. Over an 18-hole round, golfers - depending on their knack for hitting straight shots (looks like this is an area President Obama needs to work on) - usually walk five or six miles. This is not a sedentary sport. Golf is also a game for the ages. Golfers range in age from five to 100, and they're not sitting on their behinds watching Bill Maher or other pundits while playing a round.

Speaking of Youth

The First Tee is a wonderful program that introduces youngsters - mostly from the inner-city - to golf. Its charter is simple: to provide young people of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop life-enhancing values such as confidence, perseverance and judgment through golf and character education.

The program, overseen by the famed boxer Joe Louis's son, Joe Louis Barrow, now has 205 chapters and nearly 700 program locations in 49 states and over 2,800 schools. It also has five international sites, and has improved the lives of 2.9 million kids since introduced in 1997. For 2010, the organization's goal is to have operations in 90% of the top 100 markets in the country. It works in conjunction with golf-industry groups such as the Ladies Professional Golf Association, PGA of America, PGA Tour and the United States Golf Association.

Charities & College Help

Golf is by far the biggest fundraiser for good causes among all sports. In 2008, the PGA Tour alone generated $124 million for charities. Thousands of other local entities also use golf tournaments every year as ways to raise money for needy organizations and individuals.

A few of the charities targeted by the PGA Tour might be near and dear to your heart, Bill. They include the Alzheimer's Foundation, American Cancer Society, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, Habitat for Humanity, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Meals on Wheels, MS Society, Ronald McDonald Houses, Salvation Army, Special Olympics, Susan G. Komen Foundation, Teach for America and the YMCA.

The Tiger Woods Foundation, created by the game's best player - who happens to be of African-American and Thai descent, has reached more than 10 million young people. He has helped raise and disperse more than $30 million toward communities nationwide through grants, scholarships and the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif.

The Western Golf Association oversees one of the nation's most generous college-scholarship foundations. The Evans Scholarship was founded by golf great and lifetime amateur Charles "Chick" Evans Jr. (1890-1979) to help caddies improve their lot in life. Since its inception in 1930, over 8,900 young caddies have earned college degrees through Evans Scholarships. Today, 865 caddies are attending colleges around the U.S. as Evans Scholars.

Get a Clue Bill

Bill: The next time you start railing about golf as being solely a "white man's" sport or a game for the wealthy and wasteful, check your facts. The largest growth area in the game over the past decade has been in the youth, women and minority population segments. Thanks to lower green fees caused by a competitive marketplace, the game is also now much more affordable for America's lower and middle classes.

Ironically - at least for your argument, golf is the only game that, because it's so damned hard and impossible to perfect, reduces even the richest and most conservative of Americans to everyday hacks. More importantly, it's an addictive, endlessly interesting game, one that greatly enriches America's economically, politically and racially diverse personality.