Water: Oil for the 21st Century

Irrigating golf courses a hot topic at USGA meetings
February 11, 2015 Updated: January 24, 2016

NEW YORK, N.Y.—In holding its annual meeting at the storied Waldorf Astoria Hotel this past Saturday, in the heart of Manhattan, the United States Golf Association (USGA) used an iconic address to highlight its new celebrity status in showcasing its 12-year television deal with FOX, which will be the sole provider of USGA events—most notably the Men’s Open commencing this year. The total deal is worth approximately $1.1 billion over that time frame.

But the more pressing challenge was aptly placed at the very beginning of the day’s program. Clearly not as showy, with former world No. 1 player Greg Norman appearing on stage with his on-air compatriots from the FOX network, but clearly more pressing upon golf’s 21st century roadmap was the emphasis on overall water usage and how this precious resource will be used in years to come.

Golf’s Hot Topic

Over and over again the most said word during the water discussion was sustainability. How to make those operating golf facilities be acutely aware that the scarcity of water is a topic becoming more and more an item of immense concern—by both golfers and, even more importantly, key decision makers who are not golfers.

The central aspect presented during the program is changing the paradigm that golf courses must be verdant green and making them more natural—making the game more fun and less costly in the process.

To its credit, the USGA smartly jumpstarted the conversation with a clear action when staging the 2014 U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open on back-to-back weeks at Pinehurst No. 2 course in June 2014. The USGA, in concert with the club’s ownership—Club Corporation and architectural tandem of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore—restored the very qualities architect Donald Ross had provided to the facility’s flagship. Instead of using 55 million gallons of water annually for its daily upkeep, the total was reduced to 15 million—roughly a 70 percent reduction. Areas that had been routinely watered previously were no longer irrigated. A more natural—bouncier and firmer course—set the stage for the world’s finest players on both sides of the gender aisle.

Brown Is Beautiful

The notion that “brown is beautiful” was not lost on Norman who stated that when he first started playing golf in his homeland of Australia the need to control the ball after it landed on the ground was something he worked on rigorously during his player development days. Having brown colored surfaces interspersed with green grass areas was routine for “The Great White Shark” when growing up. Only after coming to America in the early 1980s when competing on the PGA Tour did Norman soon realize that point-to-point golf was how nearly all golf courses were setup for regular professional events.

Major ongoing droughts—in nearly all of California and much of Texas—have clearly illuminated that past practices of watering all areas of golf courses will soon be jettisoned out of the picture, either voluntarily or by strict compliance through local and state conservation laws. New education efforts will be needed to make sure golf is proactive in showing other key stakeholders that it takes seriously its responsibility in using such a vital resource. Failure to plan ahead could very well mean that golf will be seen as a “non-cooperator.” That type of approach could well lead to even more drastic future cuts of water allotment and severe consequences to the overall health of all types of golf facilities.

The Pinehurst experiment was a clear statement from the USGA in illuminating the debate through its showcase events for men and women. Getting that specific message to filter through the entire golf community is a major question mark. Past practices are no longer sustainable but past practices have also been ingrained for much longer.

The Need Is Now

At Saturday’s meeting a number of speakers emphasized that water management practices would need to be implemented quickly, changing to turf types better suited to the new demands and reducing grass areas previously irrigated so that only areas of central importance would remain under sprinkler and hand watering coverage.

Education efforts would be central in getting all golfers—whether at private or public facilities—to realize that new practices from course superintendents would enhance the “fun” factor when playing and, at the same time, result in savings of dollars already being spent to keep courses unnaturally green for longer and longer periods of time.

The main downside of the USGA discussion on water usage was the discussion and debate in controlling the distances clubs and balls provide now. Advancements in club and ball technology have been responsible for even larger parcels of land having been used for course development. Those increased acres have been quite thirsty in their need for water.

Thus far the USGA has shown a clear hesitancy to roll-back the clear gains made on the equipment side of things in order to avoid any likely litigation with equipment producers. Leading players such as Jack Nicklaus have stated for quite some time that reining in these gains would be a plus on many fronts—from saving water to speeding up the pace of play as distances between holes would be reduced.

The water debate is clearly here to stay. The USGA made a bold move with Pinehurst and the overall positive reaction from various major stakeholders has put into motion some positive steps. Nonetheless, those steps will need to pick up their pace—Mother Nature is not waiting. And should golf fail to take heed, the likelihood—near certainty—is that more drastic steps could well mean a more challenged golf environment than ever before.

Odds and Ends

The USGA also announced that starting in 2018 there will be a U.S. Women’s Senior Open Championship for females ages 50 and older. The exact size of the playing field and inaugural host site have yet to be determined. The Senior Women’s Open is the final bookend to other events the USGA stages on both sides of the gender aisle and marks the 14th national event conducted by the association.

M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.