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John Reitman

By John Reitman

It is up to all of us to debunk the misinformation and negative stereotypes of golf

Has anyone ever asked you "where do you see yourself in five years?" It is a question most ponder, yet few can accurately answer.

Now, have you ever asked that about the golf business? 

The game provides employment to more than 1.5 million Americans  while generating close to $100 billion in annual wages. The past few years have yielded a record number of golfers and more rounds played in the U.S. than ever before. It also can be a great form of exercise.

As golf continues to ride a wave of renewed enthusiasm in a post-pandemic world, while at the same time continuing to fend off criticism from voices outside the ropes, the well-being of the game's future seems to be a fair question. How long will the comeback last? 

There are many more non-golfers than golfers, and half of them, according to the National Golf Foundation, do not have a favorable view of the game. That's understandable considering their exposure to the game and the land on which it is played.

When non-golfers are exposed to golf it likely occurs in a limited number of ways, watching tournaments like the Masters or the U.S. Open, and when they drive past a golf course they see irrigation running and lush, green turf.

So, how do the game's stakeholders continue to navigate against the current of negative public opinion over golf's perceived negative environmental impact and its reputation of being exclusive? What, if anything, can be done to win them over?

Detractors say golf is too exclusive, golf courses use too much water and pesticides and fertilizers poison the ground.

Successfully picking next week's winning lottery numbers might be easier. After all, facts have never mattered when smearing golf.

Detractors point to several reasons they believe golf courses would be better used for other purposes.

The game, they claim, is too exclusive. Additionally, golf courses use too much water. Fertilizers and pesticides poison the ground and present a hazard to non-target organisms. Some chemicals used on golf courses even have been blamed for causing cancer, resulting in several being banned in cities and states throughout the country, despite a lack of compelling evidence.

An editorial in the Tampa Bay Times accused golf courses of being "an environmental blight" based on use of water, pesticides and fertilizers.

Just a few years ago, the sports staff at CNN (didn't really know it had one) published a story declaring that golf was "on borrowed time" because of climate change. 

The story went on to label golf as a "dirty sport that's wrecking the planet," and the game must become more sustainable "to save the planet."

Access to water has long been a controversial topic in the West. Will golf courses in the arid West be relegated to target golf? Will the spigot for some be turned off entirely?

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Those who look unfavorably upon golf say golf courses use too much water.

There are scores of alternative media that say it is time to abolish golf because of its (perceived) negative environmental impact. Further complicating this issue is a constant barrage of information — and misinformation — as the lines between mainstream and alternative media are more blurred now than ever. To that end, another common criticism by the media is that the game caters to the rich, and therefore the acreage dedicated to golf should be surrendered for the greater good for things like high-density housing or public greenspace (remember people picnicking on golf courses in the early days of Covid?). 

The truth is more people than ever — 23 million, or about 7 percent of the U.S. population — played golf last year, and about 75 percent of U.S. golf courses are open to the public, according to the National Golf Founday.

It's funny how those who say 150 acres of grass and trees are bad for the environment will also champion the construction of strip malls, parking lots and apartment buildings in their place.

All those golfers and all those rounds mean spending a lot of time managing the golf course. And the game's naysayers already point fingers at mechanized equipment for belching greenhouse gas emissions into the air. Golf, they conclude, must do more to decrease their carbon footprint and become more sustainable.

According to published reports, the United States emits about 6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That might sound like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the combined 15 billion — that's billion with a "B" — metric tons produced by China and India. Until headway is made in Asia, it matters little what anyone else does. But then again, facts seem to matter little in the cold war against golf.

A recent University of Wisconsin study found that four golf courses emitted about 4,000 kg of carbon dioxide per year. Conversely, jet aircraft emit 6 kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram of fuel. The average private jet has a fuel capacity of about 6,000 pounds, or about 2,750 kg. That's as much as 16,500 kg of carbon dioxide in a single tank.

If we're going to point fingers, then let's point fingers.

There are many more non-golfers than golfers, and half of them, according to the National Golf Foundation, do not have a favorable view of the game.

The reality is golf courses are farther along on the route to sustainability than they've ever been. Products produced by chemical companies are safer than ever and are effective at lower rates. Many courses are using less water than ever. Wildlife abounds and bird boxes, bat boxes and naturalized areas are on more courses than not.

All that seems to matter little to the anti-golf crowd. 

Towns, cities and states from coast to coast have banned a variety of pesticides, many of which are used on golf courses. Some bans include golf, others have given the industry an exemption — for now. 

Most recently, New York enacted a law that will ban the use of neonicotinoids. In December, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law the Birds and Bees Protection Act. The legislation is intended to protect pollinators by restricting the use of neonicotinoids containing clothianidin, imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, dinotefuran or acetamiprid on turf; coated corn, soybean and wheat seeds in agriculture; and outdoor ornamental plants. The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2027. Despite a long history of responsible pesticide use in the turf industry, the ban includes golf, leaving superintendents there with few efficacious options.

A total of 23 million people played golf last year. That is more than ever, but it also means more than 300 million people do not, and about 150 million of them do not look favorably on golf.

As the cold war against golf shows no sign of letting up, have you asked where your industry will be in five years? Because facts matter little.

Advocating for the game means more than just attracting new players. It also means educating those who will never pick up a club or strike a ball about the benefits of golf and what superintendents do to maintain the playing surface. And everyone who works in the game has a responsibility to school non-golfers and debunk the myths that others espouse.

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