The ABCs of ESG for Golf Course Superintendents

Environment Social Governance-ESG

Google the letters “ESG” and you’ll find millions of entries. Refine your search to the past month, week or day, and you’ll see headlines across all major news sources, buzzing about environmental, social and governance investing, accountability and disclosures, collectively described as ESG.

ESG investing means the decision to invest money selectively in funds comprised of companies that demonstrate responsible practices environmentally, socially, and in their corporate decision making. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent issues of civil and social unrest have made ESG considerations, already a rising priority, a hot-list item for businesses of all types, including those in the golf industry.

This article looks at how and why ESG for golf course superintendents and other golf management professionals matters as America enters a new era of heightened business transparency and accountability.

Far More Than a Tree Hugger’s Initiative

Some of the most dedicated (and under-recognized) stewards of the environment are golf course superintendents, turf managers, directors of golf, and their hardworking crews. Inasmuch as they may be inspired by the doe and her fawn ambling through the grassy rough or an amber sunset casting long shadows on their greens and fairways, golf superintendents fully understand that revenue pays salaries, and capital improvements keep golfers coming back. While it may have started as a joke, it’s no laughing matter to say, “The Golden Rule is ‘Whoever has the gold makes the rules.’”

As corporate America ramps up environmental and social accountability, it is not only reacting to the predilections of stockholders but also it is responding to increasing pressure directed at the Securities and Exchange Commission to set uniform corporate disclosure guidelines. New guidelines for corporate reporting means that organizations and facilities are going to be held accountable like never before for how their actions and decisions impact the environment, the community, their employees, and their patrons.

Presently, the SEC is still grappling with how to set standardized guidelines for ESG disclosures to shareholders. Businesses come in too many different shapes, sizes, and niches to make the setting of consistent standards a simple task. Nevertheless, the guidelines are coming. European regulators have this process well underway with their directives already drafted and currently in revision, a solid indicator the U.S. won’t be far behind.

Whether your golfers are members, shareholders or taxpayers, they deserve and increasingly demand transparent accountability. The people who indirectly pay salaries expect the efforts and actions of course management to be politically correct, environmentally responsible, and socially sensitive.

How ESG Came to Matter EVERYWHERE, Including on Golf Courses

During the Vietnam War, two protestant ministers with anti-war sentiments sought a place to invest church money without supporting the stocks of companies whose products, services or dollars went to military endeavors. Failing to find an investable fund that suited them, the ministers established their own. As simple as that, the groundwork was laid for socially acceptable stock trading.

Now, fast forward through oil spills, water, air and noise pollution, the use of toxic chemicals, fracking, deforestation, global warming, melting icecaps, declining pollinators and more social causes and issues than we can list. In 2004, CEOs from roughly fifty major corporations convened as part of a United Nations initiative. Their goal was to incorporate environmental, social and governance accountability to capital markets.

Included in the group of financial industry heavy hitters were Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Morgan Stanley, UBS, and other organizations with deep ties to the golf world as tournament sponsors or for their investment and lending support of equipment, chemicals, and industry-relevant manufacturing.

From this point forward, publicly held companies have moved ahead, sometimes by inches and sometimes by leaps and long drives, toward transparent disclosure of their actions, efforts and dollars. And where publicly held companies go, privately-held organizations and municipal facilities emulate in ways that fit their structure while positioning them to remain competitive for golfers, workers, community goodwill and investment funding.

How Golf Course Superintendents Address and Benefit from the Focus on ESG

It could take several years before new expectations filter down to your golf course, but who can say? It’s not as if today’s world is anything like the world we’ve all known in the past. Now could be an excellent time to get out ahead of new documenting and reporting requirements that inevitably are coming.

Step 1: Social and Governance Accountability

As a manager, you should prepare for increased scrutiny of diversity in hiring and salary equality. Pay attention to practices that others, within or outside your organization, could label as gender, ethnic, religious, age-related or other type of bias. Expect a new-world emphasis on sensitivity around cultural practices and religious traditions, some of which may be unknown to you presently.
Beyond maintaining a fair-minded workplace, golf superintendents may be asked to demonstrate and document practices that create an environment where workers feel encouraged, protected and supported. Teen training projects coordinated with local schools could be one way to create a pipeline of future employees from currently underrepresented demographics.

Providing time and championing the involvement of your crew in charitable volunteerism is another way you may be asked to improve your organization’s ESG profile. Yes, your golf course provides jobs, tax revenue and recreational opportunities for your community, but soon those contributions may not be enough.

Nevertheless, after years of talking to and writing about golf course superintendents, one message prevails: You guys and gals genuinely care! Repeatedly, we hear superintendents say,

“Our maintenance crew is a family,” “We are la Familia,” or “We support and care about each other as our second family.”

If these statements truly reflect the attitudes of turf and maintenance workers, then fulfilling the social and governance issues of ESG may not require the superintendent to add anything new. Instead, superintendents may need only to develop a consistent and repeatable way of documenting how they already are attracting and developing employees, building public awareness and supporting the community through involvement and volunteerism.

Step 2: Environmental Accountability

Environmental accountability (the “E” in ESG) should come easy for most directors of golf and golf course superintendents. Given that every single day of your work life is wrapped around risk mitigation, water and chemical conservation, supply chain management, and environmental stewardship, you pretty much have the Big E already locked up and accounted for.
Nonetheless, each of us can always do more and be better, as you set new goals for environmental responsibility, try to implement these four accountability steps:

  1. Establish your strategy with an objective and a plan that looks at where your facility is currently and the goals you seek to attain.
  2. Create a framework for reporting your progress.
  3. Recognizing that some objectives can be hard to quantify, ensure you are reporting your data accurately. Adding or expanding your use of course maintenance software can help with this step. Depending upon your project, look at Turf Assistant, Pilot Command Center from Hunter Industries, Limble CMMS, ONLINK or other project-appropriate software programs.
  4. Verify the transparency of your reporting. Using technology, of course, makes this process easier as most software programs produce reports that make quantifying data simple and consistent.

ESG for Golf Course Superintendents: Easier than You Think

ESG accountability and reporting may sound like, and even be, one more task that takes time and energy away from getting “real work” done on the course. But golf superintendents actually should consider themselves lucky. While managers in other types of businesses are struggling to figure out how to be socially and environmentally accountable, the very nature of golf maintenance lends itself to cohesive work culture and abundant opportunities to be good stewards of the environment.

If you are not doing so already, consider taking advantage of the resources offered by The Environmental Institute for Golf. EFIG is the philanthropic organization of Golf Course Superintendents of America. On the EFIG website (, you’ll find a wealth of information in the My Learning Hub, along with opportunities to get involved in new environmental stewardship practices, scholarship programs for GCSAA members and their families and other tools to help make you the greenest and most socially responsible superintendent around.

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