How to achieve sustainability with limited cash flow?

By: Jonathan Smith April 27, 2016

Jonathan Smith is the Chief Executive of GEO (The Golf Environment Organization) the not-for-profit organization dedicated to working with the golf industry to drive sustainability in and through the sport. Jonathan has worked in the golf industry for 20 years and is widely respected within both the golf and the sustainability sectors.

What is the impact of investment in sustainability on customer experience?

First, let’s define what sustainability in golf is. There is often a misperception that sustainability in golf means putting up bird boxes and drying out greens to reduce water use. Instead, sustainability is about securing the future of the game, in short it is practices which support: environmental stewardship, protecting and enhancing the natural environment; economic security for the business and through that security of jobs for staff and contractors; social equality and value, for members, visitors, staff, the local community and youngsters. Sustainability impacts every part of the game and should benefit all those involved.

Now, to the question, the debate around this subject is fascinating, surveys such as Nielsen’s 2014 global survey on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), show that as a society in general consumers are increasingly preferring, expecting, and willing to pay more for products which demonstrate social and environmental responsibility.

Not only is there this increasing demand but, as we’ve discussed, sustainability increases business and social value, which in turn can be expected to increase customer experience through course quality and increased member satisfaction, plus the well-documented benefits which a closer connection to nature brings to our individual and collective welfare.

That said, the exact correlation between investment in sustainability and customer experience is not something we’ve found research into as yet. But, this is precisely the type of interesting, and important question we think the industry needs to fully understand and is one of the areas we’re supporting the industry to explore.

Global Consumers Sustainability

What are the latest sustainability trends in the golf industry?

There are three key pillars to sustainable golf which are being followed by golf courses across the world:

  1. Nature: protecting and enhancing the habitat on golf courses for local wildlife and Plant life;
  2. Resources:  reducing inputs used when managing golf courses and using materials more efficiently to reduce waste;
  3. Community: engaging in communities to contribute increasing positive social value.

Throughout the golf industry, there are countless examples of action in these areas, and priorities change from region to region. For example, water conservation and efficiency are particularly important in hot climates and clubs based in or near protected areas or which host rare and protected species have a particularly strong focus on nature protection.

In collaboration with many industry partners, we’re currently developing an online guidance, reporting, planning and communications platform that will be able to identify sustainability trends and support the sharing of new practices from real world examples. This platform, OnCourse® v4, is an upgrade to the current OnCourse® programme for sustainable golf which is freely available to clubs worldwide and can be found at

Through this easy to use online platform people in the industry will be aware of current trends, ideas, and be able to access solutions that are most useful to them based on their needs and their region. One of the focuses of OnCourse® will be to regionalise this information, recognising how priorities and trends and legislation differ across the globe. OnCourse® can also help clubs to gain recognition for their positive work by supporting them to gain golf’s global eco-label, GEO Certified®.

1_The Pillars of Sustainable Golf

What is the impact of technology solutions (e.g. GreenSight, OnGolf USA) on achieving sustainability?

These technologies are improving resource efficiency on golf courses, especially in the areas of water and nutrient inputs to the golf course.  These are traditionally major inputs into a golf course and therefore reducing these inputs is significant for achieving greater sustainability.

However, these technologies often come at large costs which make them only available to top end golf clubs and early adopters.  Reducing the cost of these technologies in the coming years will make them more widely accessible and continue to drive sustainability in the industry.

That said it is exciting to see these technology solutions continue to emerge within the game. It shows that there is a lot of creativity, ingenuity, and a desire amongst the industry to drive more sustainable operations. It is our hope that the upgraded OnCourse® can serve as a vehicle in helping connect these solutions to industry members and drive the accessibility of such technologies to all clubs.

What kind of solutions would you recommend to golf clubs to achieve better water usage efficiency?

Well, every course is at a different stage on this journey and has different conditions, opportunities, and threats. But in general, there are a wide variety of approaches to make water usage more efficient. OnCourse® offers ideas which look at reducing need for water, increasing the efficiency of use and sourcing water responsibly.

Reducing the need for water on the course can be done by in various ways, including using turfgrass species particularly suited to the local climatic conditions, removing overhanging vegetation to allow rain to reach greens, and minimising the area of managed turfgrass on the course, a practice which can also increase naturalization of the course.

Once the need for water has been minimized its important to ensure that the water then used is used effectively. This can be done through using an efficient irrigation system, placing sprinklers in optimum positions, ensuring irrigation is adjusted for daily conditions to avoid over and under watering, and monitoring of water use to allow clubs to quickly identify and fix any leaks that may occur. 

The source of water used can also have a big environmental and financial impact. Clubs can look at collecting, storing and using rainwater, recycling treated greywater and desalination techniques, to name just a few options.

Aside from irrigation systems, closed loop water systems for wash bays are becoming increasingly common and of course, there’re opportunities in the maintenance facilities and club house for efficient use of water with percussion taps, low-flow toilets, and showers, use of recycled and greywater and positive behaviours around water use from staff and visitors to the site.

One of the things we did very early at GEO was beginning to build a network of experts – we call them GEOSA (GEO Sustainability Associates). The concept behind this network is that, if you are working through OnCourse®, and decide you want further advice and recommendations even more specific to your own club and your own circumstances, for example on water use, – there is a GEOSA near your area that is not only a sustainability specialist, but understands the distinct variables at play in your environment. There are now 74 GEOSA all across the globe which clubs can call on for that in-depth specific advice.

Some of the 74 GEOSA

Image: Some of the 74 GEOSA (GEO Sustainability Associates) in 34 countries around the world.

Do you think organic golf courses are viable?

Yes, is the short answer, I do think organic golf courses are a viable option.  However, fully organic golf courses are still rare. There are more research, development and good old fashioned real on-the-ground experience that needs to take place. Knowledge gained from this can be learned from and shared to allow organic courses to be more accessible and increase their validity.

To an extent, there also needs to be a perception change on the behalf of the golfer. Golfers will need to understand that an organic golf course changes with the seasons and with the weather conditions and that the pest pressure may be slightly higher on organic golf courses.  But there are some successful examples of organic golf courses, including the new Irie Fields course in St Kitts and Nevis, and I only expect to see that number of successful organic golf courses continue to grow. Regardless, all courses should consider chemical inputs as a last measure after they’ve taken other steps to promote healthy turf, as most already do.


What can golf courses do to achieve sustainability in the case of limited cash flow?

One can look at sustainability in terms of quadrants. One of these quadrants may contain more ‘innovative solutions for the future’– and these do tend to be more capital-intensive initially with payoffs in the longer term.  Meanwhile, another quadrant is ‘practical solutions for today’ – this is more of the “turn the lights off” when you’re away mentality, examples might include rotating sprinkler head nozzles, adjusting mowing patterns, or reducing the level of maintained areas.

Not only is there a diversity of solutions available regardless of cash flow, but, as we’ve discussed, the actual definition of sustainability would suggest that solutions should be environmentally friendly as well as financially feasible. Adopting more sustainable practices in most cases will actually save money.  Those clubs which have limited cash flow could actually benefit most from sustainable practices.

How are the latest trends in golf course turf helping to achieve sustainability?

Golf courses are increasingly switching to turf grass varieties that are less water intensive and can survive with lower quality irrigation water.  This means that many golf courses are providing the ecosystem service of water purification.

The improvement of integrated pest management systems has decreased the amount of input of fertilizer and pesticides to golf courses.  All of these measures are helping improve the positive impact of turf management on the surrounding ecosystems, thereby improving sustainability.