One has hosted 10,000 campers in pup tents; another welcomes snowshoe hikers; one more is working with a retired university president to grow the Monarch butterfly population; and yet another helps to generate $400,000 in one day to benefit a local hospital.

All different activities, managed by the same professional – the golf course superintendent.

No one will argue that golf is the primary business of a golf course. But, after selling itself short for years, golf is flexing its muscles when it comes to telling its story of sustainability. And it might just be this flurry of counter punching that over time puts golf on the map for its environmental, economic and social achievements.

A new measuring stick

It was just over a decade ago that the word “sustainability” became a part of the golf industry vernacular. With it came confusion and frustration.

Greg Lyman, who developed an award-winning environmental stewardship program for turf professionals at Michigan State University and later served as head of environmental programs for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, understands. He says superintendents felt they invested time and energy in successfully demonstrating their environmental stewardship, only to have their evaluation changed to a new standard.

At Highlands Country Club, Brian Stiehler grows vegetables and fruit — much of which ends up at the local food pantry.PHOTO COURTESY OF HIGHLANDS COUNTRY CLUB

“Sustainability as a measurement for business has been around since the late 1980s,” Lyman says. “It refers to the ability of businesses to meet the needs of their customers without compromising the ability to meet the needs of future generations. No longer was the financial bottom line the sole measure of success. Now they were being evaluated on the triple bottom line known as ‘people, planet and profit.’

“Businesses were now being judged on their financial performance, their environmental footprint and how they served the public,” Lyman continues. “And that judgment was being made with an eye to the future. This was not only new for superintendents, but also new for golf as a whole.”

The silver lining in a dark cloud

It was a dark day in American history that eventually provided the impetus for the industry to leverage the concept of sustainability. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, necessitating an extensive disaster relief program to aid recovery. But left out of the federal funding package was golf. It was lumped in with tattoo parlors, casinos and similar businesses as not being eligible for aid.

It was a slap in the face … and it woke up the industry.

Led by then-PGA of America CEO Joe Steranka, the various golf organizations marshaled the forces to create a new dialogue. Not only was golf a great game, but it was one that had positive environmental, economic and social attributes. It was time to expand the discussion beyond the facts that golf was a productive form of recreation and that golf courses were managed in a manner compatible with the natural environment.

“I believe we as an industry can make the most impact by demonstrating what we do for our communities,” says Brian Stiehler, the certified golf course superintendent for Highlands (North Carolina) Country Club. “We have done a good job showing we are good environmental stewards – and certainly we cannot let up – but I don’t think people understand we are valuable businesses that positively impact our communities. For example, Highlands is the 16th largest employer in the county. It would be a blow to lose those jobs, let alone a golf course that is valuable to our tourism.”

Stiehler knows of what he speaks. As the government relations contact for the Carolinas GCSA, he has had numerous conversations with lawmakers about what golf means to communities. As a city councilman, member of the rotary and the chamber of commerce, he can speak their language, as well. What makes lawmakers take note, he says, is that golf is a sustainable industry. It generates jobs, it provides valuable green space and communities are enhanced by the facilities.

“You would be surprised the reaction I get when I tell people we raise $400,000 a year for our local hospital,” Stiehler says. “They can’t get that much money from any other source. We have raised $11 million through our Bob Jones tournament for a facility that saves lives.”

An open-door policy

The golf industry need not beat itself up because it has been late to the game in showcasing the social element of sustainability. Those who study the subject contend most industries sell themselves short on their positive impacts to society.

Craig Moore, golf course superintendent at Marquette (Michigan) Country Club, tries to eliminate any mystery by opening his doors to anyone and everyone. Located on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the semi-private club hosts 51 outside events during its six-month season. More than half of those outings are for non-profit organizations that rely on the revenue from the events for their existence. Moore also sets up areas for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, available at no charge to Marquette residents. A voracious blogger, he shares his minimalist management style, his annual bird counts (numbering more than 100) and the benefits of turfgrass.

“I take the approach that we have no secrets,” Moore says. “We want people to know what we do and what we have to offer. We are part of the Noquemanon Trail Network, a series of bike trails in the city. It goes around our perimeter and non-playing areas of the club so people can ride around and experience our course even if they don’t golf.

“I say I have a dream job in God’s country,” he continues. “It is absolutely beautiful. I want to do everything I can do to protect it. And, I want people to experience it as well. That’s why we are busy with some activity every day.”

Stiehler says Highlands takes a similar approach by design. He notes that a phrase in the club’s mission statement – “the club will be an involved and responsible participant in the Highlands community” – calls for it to support civic, cultural and nonprofit endeavors.

“Our biggest asset is our membership,” Stiehler says. “Most of them are families who have been members for several generations. They see the club as one that gives back and supports the community.”

Good partners are good for business

The county in northwest Iowa in which Brett Hetland resides has a permanent population of 10,000. But come summertime, the tourists come to town and by July 4 about 80,000 will be there enjoying all it has to offer. As the certified golf course superintendent at Brooks Golf Club in Okoboji, Iowa, Hetland knows his job is to present a golf course that attracts its share of visitors.

But that doesn’t mean golf is the only activity for which he manages the 250-acre property.

In fact, over the course of a year, the turf at Brooks Golf Club has hosted a wedding ceremony, a bird-watching expedition, scores of tents (10,000 in all) for cyclists taking a break during a cross-state ride, a state cross-country meet and cross-country skiers.

“We always seem to have something going on,” Hetland says. “The course is a place where people of all backgrounds come and enjoy themselves. [The course is an] important member of the business community.”

That people venture out to Brooks for reasons other than golf is a credit to Hetland. He earned the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in 2009, is certified as an Audubon Sanctuary Course, and was recognized in 2011 by the Groundwater Foundation for his protection of groundwater supplies.

“I think people appreciate our environmental work,” Hetland says. “They see this as a place that is safe and protects the environment. It’s good business because we save money and it markets who we are – a good corporate citizen.”

One such example is Hetland’s birding program. It was thought to be a one-time effort to fulfill Audubon requirements in 2002 under the direction of two experts. But word spread about the bird population, and the traffic grew to groups as large as 40. The course now hosts birders the first Monday of every month in April, May, June, July and September. More than 130 species have been identified by golfers and non-golfers.

Class is in session

Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, received a shot in the arm when Colbert Hills Golf Course came online in 2000 as an educational component. It not only provided a high-quality golf track for students and faculty, but it became a living laboratory and classroom.

“We are a nonprofit that provides educational opportunities to KSU students, a facility for the school’s golf teams and a playing-condition research facility,” Colbert Hills Certified Golf Course Superintendent Matt Gourlay says. “We have created an endowment to fund scholarships for the turf program and the golf teams. We regularly conduct turf research, including five projects last year that helped educators and extension agents in their teachings and information sharing. The information goes straight to business professionals and homeowners to help them manage landscapes.

“We also have a variety of students who come out to the course to complete projects. These include turf students, but also those from the business school, hotel and restaurant management students, landscape architects and others. In many ways we are an extension of the university.”

Colbert Hills is often a backdrop for prom and wedding photographs.PHOTO COURTESY OF COLBERT HILLS GOLF COURSE

Gourlay notes Colbert Hills has partnered with a local activist to help grow the Monarch butterfly population. None other than retired Kansas State President John Wefald, himself possessing an agriculture background, reached out to the Colbert Hills staff to create more habitat to restore the number of this valuable member of the food chain and an important pollinator.

A common thread?

None of the four superintendents interviewed for this article believe their facilities suffer a negative perception. Is there a reason? Are they unique?

Answering the second part first, the answer is no. Virtually every golf facility contributes in a positive fashion to their communities. The distinction comes in the degree to which they do it. Lyman believes many golf courses could position themselves as even more valuable community assets through better communications and a sharper focus.

“Partnerships can be productive,” Lyman says. “There are schools, organizations and other businesses where the social aspect of the sustainability equation can be strengthened by working together. Superintendents are busy people. Why not partner with those experts who can help?”

As for the first question, one reason they have a positive identity is they measure performance through programs and awards. They document the number of bird species, the quality of water leaving the course, the amount of inputs used, and they subject themselves to third-party evaluation for verification. A second factor in their success is effective communications. Each has a blog or website and uses social media to share his course’s story.

Not only are they talking the talk, but they are walking it by being good corporate citizens and providing benefits to the community.

COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF COLBERT HILLS GOLF COURSE