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Developing and understanding the business case for sustainability is critical for success within any business. Golf facilities are small businesses, and the typical business case revolves around costs and revenues. Successful environmental initiatives for the small business must incorporate tangible results due to ever increasing economic pressures and limited resources including time, manpower, equipment, materials and funding. Progress is generally made by starting with small steps focusing on the low-hanging fruit, building momentum, experiencing success and then working toward continuous improvement.

Many initiatives within small businesses are the result of a “champion” embracing them and inspiring others to try something different. It is important to foster an environment where employees can engage their peers and encourage management to bring about change within select operational areas that improve operations. In terms of sustainability, the most successful efforts are through a team approach.  When owners, managers, employees and ultimately, the clientele are engaged in the process, then short-term successes are more likely to turn into long-term benefits, including revenue generation and extended return of investments.

What does sustainability mean?

Sustainability focuses on the “triple bottom line” – people, planet, and profit – to ensure businesses are successful.

The term “sustainability” may be considered by some to be a vague term, and it has been defined in a variety of ways. However, it has been recognized and defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations. The most recognized definition has its roots in the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development report, Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, which defines it as

"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

The three elements

Sustainability theories and models have been around for years, but unlike the term “green,” sustainability focuses on the “triple bottom line” – people, planet, and profit – to ensure businesses are successful. Regardless of the theory, there are three key elements of a sustainability position:

  1. People: centered for people now and in the future
  2. Planet: ecologically viable
  3. Profit: economically feasible

Simply stated, adopting a sustainable business philosophy is the incorporation of these three key elements into the decision-making process.

Other benefits and values

Sustainability experts recognize and promote these benefits and other potential values associated with sustainability from other industries and businesses. Generally recognized sustainability values and benefits include:

  • Realized direct cost savings
  • Increased customer loyalty and attraction
  • Reduce risk and increase positive returns
  • Improved relationships / image
  • Improved overall branding
  • Increased employee relations
  • New or enhanced innovation or technologies

Defining sustainability for the golf industry

The golf industry embraces sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Through collaboration of the Environmental Institute for Golf, the Golf 20/20 Environmental Committee and GCSAA’s Environmental Programs Committee, a definition was developed for the golf course industry that reflects the key elements.

"The U.S. golf industry recognizes sustainability as the integration of environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic viability as a critical and never-ending goal. The golf industry embraces sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainability is about ensuring profitable businesses while making decisions that are in the long-term interest of the environment and communities. The focus is on continual improvement, professionally managing and conserving resources and inputs, and reducing waste while providing playing conditions that satisfy golfers of today and tomorrow.

Why sustainability for golf facilities?

Perhaps the biggest driver for the golf course industry to adopt sustainability centers on the facility’s ability to do business. Economic, environmental and regulatory pressures continue to rise. Regulations pertaining to water quality and water use are advancing. The costs of doing business are going up. Resource restrictions, such as land and water use, will certainly increase with the growing population.

Water use restrictions are already common to Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. Water quality issues and regulations are prevalent in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Vermont, Florida, California and all the states along the Chesapeake Bay. News headlines highlight environmental groups that are constantly filing lawsuits regarding the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Carbon, energy, and water issues will continue to make headlines.

Embracing sustainability provides an answer to ensuring golf’s future.

Sustainability experts label the business aspect of this pressure as “the license to do business.” Social expectations for use of resources and regulatory actions are impacting golf’s license to do business.

Consider the cost of doing business and the reduction in revenue that golf has faced since 2008. Efficiency has become more important than ever and will be in the future. How will golf handle these challenges, be profitable and provide valuable services for our communities?

Embracing sustainability provides an answer to ensuring golf’s future.

Many of these values are supported in part by Audubon International’s publication, Golf’s Green Bottom Line: Uncovering the Hidden Business Value of Environmental Stewardship on Golf Courses. Based upon its data, surveys and experience, Audubon International lists the following corresponding values for golf courses within its report:

  • Enhanced image and reputation
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Reduced costs
  • Improved worker safety and reduced liabilities

Many golf facilities already are currently participating in golf-centric environmental stewardship programs, such as the Michigan Environmental Stewardship Program, Golf Environment Organization, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s programs, and Air Force GEM Program. In addition, many golf courses are incorporating recognized state best management practices (BMPs), such as Florida, Georgia and Oregon, and are realizing economic, agronomic and environmental values.

Six reasons to embrace sustainability efforts

A golf facility can incorporate sustainable practices to help address the challenges that golf is facing. The following statements summarize six reasons why golf facilities should embrace sustainability:

  1. The game of golf is a sport and business that is rich in tradition and value. Golf facilities and professionals should continue to hold high standards of performance as pillars within their communities.
  2. Golf facilities deliver significant values and benefits to their communities, including social (recreational, social interaction, etc.), economic (jobs, revenues, etc.), and environmental (greenspace values). These key values correspond directly with the three key elements of sustainability; people, planet and profit. Sustainability provides the foundation to communicate golf’s values.
  3. Many golf facilities are executing sustainable practices and simply need to document, report and communicate those practices based upon an accepted and recognized platform – sustainability and continuous improvement. This will improve the image of golf, as well as the brand for the individual facility.
  4. A sustainability philosophy will position facilities and the industry proactively and will help address environmental issues and regulatory pressures.
  5. A sustainability philosophy will help with financial pressures, including revenue, efficiencies and reduced costs.
  6. A sustainability philosophy will help golf compete with other entertainment, recreation and businesses that customers choose for their leisure and hobby interests.

Opportunities for improving the triple bottom line

Understanding these key values can help golf facilities to adopt a sustainable business philosophy. Likewise, there are common operational areas that golf facilities can focus on, as well as the common benefits. These operational areas include water use, energy use, waste management, supply chain improvements, efficient processing of materials, and more. The focus includes an operational impact analysis, as well as environmental impact analysis. In golf, environmental programs and BMPs from multiple states focus on these areas as well. Together, these focus areas and benefits help to create the sustainability business case for golf facilities.

This guide incorporates four key areas that a golf facility should focus on:

  • water use: efficiency and conservation
  • energy use: efficiency and conservation
  • pollution prevention
  • water quality protection

Water use: Efficiency and conservation

The Rim Golf Club used irrigation efficiency and turfgrass reduction to save $17,000 annually.

Water is a key resource for golf facility operations and is used for managing golf playing surfaces for optimal performance and desired conditions, to food and beverage services. It directly impacts operating costs and the ability to generate revenues. It is also a key impact area for the environment and community. Water management begins with measuring, tracking and analyzing water use. A baseline is necessary in order to set goals and make improvements in a manner that demonstrates efficiency and progressive water conservation.

Flexibility and innovation are important for all operations at the facility. Incorporating a range of BMPs can help modify behavior and adapt to new technology. One facility may be able to immediately incorporate a weather station and soil sensors, while another may only be able to modify irrigation practices. Kitchens, clubhouses and pro shops may be equipped with technologically advanced equipment, and staff may be trained to conserve water.

Short-term BMPs may range from hand watering, reducing watering times or volumes, voluntarily not serving water in restaurants, or not letting water run unnecessarily. Long-term practices may include the use of technology or converting to a different turf species. The facility should plan for both short- and long-term best management practices to achieve success. It should set water efficiency / conservation goals as initiatives in conjunction with its business objectives and playability standards. Achieving customer satisfaction can be accomplished in conjunction with sustainability initiatives through the use of BMPs and innovation for all golf facility operations.

Case study: Barton Creek Resort and Spa

Barton Creek Club and Spa reported a savings of 20%-40% in water/sewer costs associated with their laundry department’s ozone treatment process. In addition, this sustainability practice resulted in a 30% reduction in natural gas usage and a reduction in chemicals by 20%-30%.

Visit the Barton Creek Resort website »

Case study: Rim GC

At the Rim Golf Club in Payson, Ariz., staff started with basic irrigation fundamentals incorporating field equipment adjustments, analyzing the central controller’s programming, adjusting run times and reducing turfgrass areas. As a result, the facility reduced its average annual water usage over the past 10 years by 3 million gallons annually and its electricity consumption by an average of 250 kWh per year. It has realized a total estimated annual savings of $17,000 associated with water conservation.

Read the case study »

Case study: Pasatiempo GC

Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif., was facing mandatory water reductions in 2009. It was required to reduce its water consumption by 30%, which equated to a 17-millon-gallon reduction. The reduction would result in a savings of approximately $125,000. Staff implemented a turfgrass reduction program to meet the water use goals. By the 2009 playing season, nearly 20 acres of previously irrigated turfgrass had been converted to non-irrigated naturalized areas. Just over 13.5 million gallons of water were saved from mid-May to mid-September in 2009. This reduction in water saved the club approximately $98,000. The conversion of turfgrass to non-turfgrass natural areas saved the club an additional estimated amount of $26,000 in labor and expenses.

Read the case study »

Case study: Locust Hill CC

The Locust Hill Country Club worked to reduce inputs while providing conditions suitable for one of golf’s premier events, the LPGA Championship. During the first seven years of BMP implementation, the course reduced both water and pesticide use by 75%, which resulted in a significant savings that was invested into seed and nutrients for turfgrass maintenance.

Read the case study »

Energy use: Efficiency and conservation

At Madden's on Gull Lake, the 'When not in use, turn off the juice' initiative saved $32,000 the first year.

Managing energy is an important element of sustainability, from its generation and use, to the social and environmental impacts. The costs associated with energy are on the rise, directly impacting personal finances and indirectly increasing the costs of products and services used daily. Energy management begins with monitoring, recording and analyzing use. Energy conservation and efficiency can be accomplished through multiple best management practices that range from behavior modification to the use of technology. Energy audits help to identify opportunities, assess sustainability, calculate return on investments and develop a plan. Most facilities may be able to immediately incorporate behavior modifications, such as turning off lights or not letting equipment idle, while others may be able to immediately invest in energy-efficient equipment.

Optimizing energy efficiency should be a primary goal of all departments at the golf facility. Many resources exist to help develop energy use plans and make improvements. Conducting an energy audit will identify short-term and long-term items, but there are some simple techniques, such as changing to high-efficiency lighting, that are obvious improvements.

Case study: Madden's on Gull Lake Resort

Madden’s on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minn., is a Golf Digest 2010 Green Star Award winner. Staff members were directed to turn off lights in unoccupied rooms as part of the resort's environmental stewardship practices. The 'When not in use, cut the juice’ initiative resulted in a savings of $32,000 in the first year. In addition, the resort experienced a $15,000 savings in the first year in natural gas consumption by implementing an ozone system within the laundry facility.

Read the Golf Digest article »

Case study: Stone Creek GC

David Phipps, superintendent at Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon City, Ore., contacted the local power company, Portland General Electric, to request a free lighting audit. The auditor determined that the facility could save 38,875 kWh or 52% by converting to more efficient lighting. In addition, the use of occupancy sensors would increase the savings to 56%. The club obtained local grant monies and completed the proposed project. During June 2010, the clubhouse saved 11.4% in power costs, and the maintenance facility realized 26.8% savings. The savings associated with the cart barn was 29.8% in June, as well.

Read the case study »

Case study: Island GC

The Island Golf Club in Plaquemine, La., performed an energy audit and worked on implementing the “low hanging fruit” for energy conservation. In addition, the facility implemented solar panel and geothermal projects to improve savings. As of November 2009 there had been an estimated 54% reduction in utility costs at the clubhouse. That is approximately $5,000 per month. The investment for these projects was approximately $252,000 for the solar projects and $90,000 for the geothermal unit project. Many tax incentives exist for alternative projects like these. The projected return on investment (ROI) for these projects is less than eight years for the solar project and six years for the geothermal unit.

Read the case study »

Case study: Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa

Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa in Thomsanville, Mich., reduced fuel consumption by using walk mowers on the Mountain Ridge course rather than a triplex mower. In addition, they narrowed the fairways on each golf course which also helped reduce fuel consumption. This adjustment did not adversely affect the course's playability or aesthetics. The estimated savings was approximately $4,000 to $5,000, including fuel and other inputs.

Read the case study »

Case study: Chiricachua GC

Chiricachua Golf Course at The Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., participated in an energy conservation program that focused on increasing the efficiency of its pump station. In 2006, energy costs on the course had risen 40% from 2004, an increase of $10,000. Their efforts resulted in a reduction in energy use by 27% (billing rates increased 20% during the same period).

Read the GCM article »

Pollution prevention

Crystal Springs Golf Course saves approximately $5,300 each year through its recycling and waste reduction program.

Pollution prevention incorporates many facets of golf facility operations, from the products used, waste materials generated, to processes such as cooking, cleaning, and building operations. Some golf operations and wastes are regulated and costly, but sustainable practices can be implemented to improve the triple bottom line. The following section focuses on the infrastructure, operations and waste management, whereas the water quality protection section focuses on the golf course inputs.

Like water and energy management BMPs, pollution prevention practices range from training and behavioral practices to the incorporation of technology. Changing from “wet cleaning” practices to “dry cleaning” practices or purchasing environmentally friendly products are examples of the “low hanging fruit” of BMPs and short-term objectives. Installing a new equipment washing station or updated kitchen equipment are examples of long-term planning objectives.

Case study: Crystal Springs Golf Course

Crystal Springs Golf Course is located within an environmentally sensitive area in Burlingame, Calif., and has set several environmental goals including some for recycling and waste reduction using the implementation of BMPs. Staff members actively recycle many materials, including cardboard, paper, plastic and metals. They have also altered their purchasing programs to seek products that generate less waste. The annual estimated savings associated with recycling and waste reduction is $5,300, and the facility was recognized in 1998 through a Waste Reduction Awards Program from the California Waste Management Board.

Read the case study » 

Case study: Little River Inn Golf and Tennis Resort

Maintenance staff at the Little River Inn Golf and Tennis Resort in Little River, Calif.., implemented a waste recycling program. The staff recycles bottles, cans, oils, fluids, etc., and composts materials from throughout the facility. Little River’s combined and estimated annual savings / net revenue from recycling and composting is $2,400.

Read the case study »

Case study: Saddle Rock GC

Saddle Rock Golf Course in Aurora, Colo., staff developed a composting process and the materials used include clipping compost material and other compostable products. Annually, the composting process generated approximately 80 cubic yards of compost that is eventually used to topdress tees, fairways and other areas on the golf course. Overall, it provided a quality topdressing material for weak and healthy turf areas on the golf course when used at an appropriate rate.

Read the case study » 

Water quality protection

By creating buffer areas and converting turfgrass into natural areas, Quail Brook GC saved 25% in fertilizer and used only 45% of its annual water allocation.

Key elements for water quality protection include, but are not limited to, IPM, nutrient management, erosion control, and managing waste water. There are many resources and best management practices available regarding water quality protection for the golf course, impervious services, hospitality services, buildings, etc.

Golf facilities are faced with increasing regulatory and economic pressures directly related to water quality protection, and this trend will continue. Recognizing the sustainability business case values in light of water quality protection is important for the golf facility and the industry. Water quality protection is a primary focus of the “license to do business” and provide services for the communities in which golf operates.

Case study: Quail Brook GC

Quail Brook Golf Course in Somerset, N.J., was certified as the first “River-Friendly” course in the main stem Raritan River area. Part of the facility's efforts included incorporating buffer areas and converting turfgrass areas into natural areas. As a result, it had a 25% savings in fertilizer, and only 45% of its annual water allocation was used.

Read the case study »

Moving forward

Adopting a sustainability business philosophy shouldn’t be awkward or troubling. It may help to first identify a champion and identify how this philosophy could be embraced throughout all aspects of the golf facility. Next, investigate how a sustainable philosophy could be aligned with the existing core business values and customer expectations for performance and quality.

Once you have committed to making progress, a key step is to establish an environmental policy statement. It helps to demonstrate management’s commitment to sustainability and continuous improvement. There are three primary elements that should be part of an environmental policy: compliance, continuous improvement, and pollution prevention. Many golf facilities probably have unwritten policies or are already supporting what a formal policy would describe. You can use the sample policies included in this section of the website as starting points.

This information is intended to help you and your staff get started and begin with small steps – working from where you are and with what you have. It is always a good idea to begin with the “low-hanging fruit” in any operation. You can easily identify areas where you are already active and where you could expand your efforts. Be sure to measure what you are currently doing so you can track progress. The adage that you can’t manage what you can’t measure applies directly to sustainability efforts.

After the initial evaluation, you should set goals and develop an action plan. Sustainability goals should be realistic and easy to understand. Be sure to incorporate plenty of flexibility in your plan, monitor progress and continuously evaluate the plan and processes. Finally, consider a voluntary environmental stewardship program to help you with your efforts. These programs can serve as excellent resources to help you on your path to success.