in The greening of golf


We golf

Brian grew up a few blocks from a nine-hole golf course in a small city in Ontario, Canada – and spent many an afternoon, evening, and sometimes night (i.e. junior hours) playing rounds, chipping, and putting on greens long-abandoned by those who had completed their rounds. Brian vaguely remembers friends who joked that you should “not lick your golf balls” because they would be coated with the chemicals that were sprayed on the course.

Brad played golf in the Ontario suburbs as much as possible too. Golf was and remains a social activity as much as a sporting endeavour – a reason to spend time with family and friends. The site of lush greens and fairways was a sign that winter had thawed.

We both grew up enamoured with the pristine courses we saw on television. Brian’s parents took him to see the Canadian Open golf tournament at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario in the early 1980s, where he saw Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and others manoeuvre a golf course that Brian remembers as a utopian landscape – with fairways that looked like putting greens, and putting greens that looked like billiard tables. Brad’s memories of golf are tied as much to watching tournaments such as the Masters on TV as they are to experiences actually playing the game.

Golf is a game we both grew up with, and one we genuinely enjoy and appreciate. We have golfed together many times. We tell you this at the outset because this book, and the research and arguments that are featured within it, unsettled how we see the game of golf. Specifically, this work raised serious questions for us about golf’s evolving relationship with the environment, and how various stakeholders in golf have responded to pressing environmental concerns. By raising these questions in the pages that follow, we might be seen by some as social scientists (i.e. critics) who don’t like and don’t ‘know’ golf. This couldn’t be further from the truth. However, as social scientists who are ultimately interested in and concerned with the factors that influence those who make decisions that have important consequences for public health and the health of the world’s natural environments we feel obligated to tell the story that emerged from our research into golf’s environmental history – and its environmental present.

The good, the bad – and the ambiguous and complex

As you will see, this book includes many storylines, some optimistic and hopeful, and others more pessimistic and cynical. On the more positive side, we discuss how an industry – the golf industry – that at one time vehemently denied its potentially negative impacts on the environment, has come to proclaim leadership on environmental issues (see Chapters 5, 6, and 7). This leadership stems in large part from the ability of key decision makers to assess the latest research related to turfgrass management and to deploy a range of technologies en route to delivering a sustainable golf course environment. This is a ‘success story’ akin to that outlined by Andrew Hoffman (2001) in his book From Heresy to Dogma: An Institutional History of Corporate Environmentalism. Hoffman described the success of the chemical and oil industries in moving from a state of denial on their negative environmental impacts (in the early 1960s) to a moment (i.e. the current moment) when foregrounding pro-environment initiatives has become the status quo. What Hoffman is really telling is an evidence-based story about industrial and organizational behavioural change. This story is nicely summarized in Hoffman’s use of the phrase “from heresy to dogma” in the book’s title to refer to the industry’s early view that acknowledging environment-related problems was heretical, and to the current situation whereby pro-environment agendas and programs are ‘par for the course’ (i.e. are dogma). We argue here in The greening of golf that Hoffman’s observations on the oil and chemical industries align well with our findings pertaining to the evolution of golf industry responses to similar issues.

The view that industry has made great progress on environmental issues is certainly something to be optimistic about. However, in this book we also contend that there are important reasons to be concerned about some of the claims made by industry about their leadership on environmental issues. We investigate how and why industry members and profit-seeking stakeholders in other industries (such the chemical industry, which produces pesticides for on-course use) are in a position to influence and sometimes make important decisions that have implications for environmental and public health. Our answers to these questions are not always the answers we would hope for. We note that the pursuit of economic prosperity sometimes seems to outweigh health-related concerns, and that astute strategies are commonly used to generate consent for decisions that are meant to simultaneously satisfy economic and environmental mandates. We ultimately suggest that some well-publicized claims about the ‘best’ options for dealing with (golf-related) environmental problems are deeply unsatisfactory.

It is here that we are especially attentive to ways that sociological research and theory can help us make sense of how and why people might make decisions that are sometimes against their own best interests – or that at least defy a precautionary approach to public health – and how the policies and belief systems that guide the activities of some governments and industries might facilitate such decision-making. In Chapter 2 we discuss these theories in detail; in later chapters we put these theories to work in making sense of our empirical findings on golf-related practices. Theory in this way is a ‘lens’ for seeing the world around us.

Thus, in this book we document both optimistic and pessimistic views on golf’s environmental record. But even in our critical moments we find reasons to be hopeful. We found hope, for example, in the emergence of ‘organic golf’ courses that are offering and promoting a chemical-free golf experience, as we describe in Chapter 9. We also appreciated the efforts of various social movement groups to challenge the status quo around golf-related developments, and to question commonly accepted and often problematic claims by golf industry advocates. Last, but certainly not least, we also came across many superintendents who maintained courses with attention to the most strategic and environmentally friendly ways of using chemicals and water – following guidelines approved by an ‘Integrated Pest Management’ (IPM) board that is mandated to promote responsible turfgrass maintenance. While we outline our concerns about this ‘responsible’ approach to golf course maintenance in Chapters 5 to 7, our critiques are of the systems and structures that require chemical inputs in the first place, and of the reasons why golf and chemical industry members would have such influence on public and environmental health-related issues. In many respects, these concerns have little to do with the often-inspiring individuals we met who were doing their best within circumstances that were not of their own choosing.

Globalization, golf, and the environment

It is with this last point in mind – the idea that there are broader forces at play facilitating potentially environmentally compromising behaviours – that we came to some of the key topics underlying the Globalizing Sports Studies series of which our book is a part. Specifically, we began to think more deeply about how globally relevant developments associated with mass media and tourism were at the core of the issue we were studying. We are referring here especially to what has come to be known as ‘Augusta National syndrome’, a term that refers to the desire for uniformly pristine golf courses reminiscent of Augusta National Golf Club where the Masters major golf tournament is held. As we discuss in Chapter 4, one of the many problems with this ‘syndrome’ is that pristine, Augusta-like conditions are quite difficult to attain without significant chemical and water inputs.

Our main point here is that the explanations for the emergence and ongoing relevance of Augusta National syndrome can be traced to ongoing processes associated with globalization. For example, widespread exposure to Augusta National’s ‘ideal’ aesthetic first occurred thanks to a major globalizing medium: television. Augusta National syndrome also resonates in many parts of the world, what with the desire to create uniform, predictable, and ultimately marketable (golf) tourism experiences. Furthermore, golf’s global growth across the twentieth century, and particularly in the post-war years, reflects the neoliberal idea that little should stand in the way of cross-border development. Neoliberalism is also relevant to the idea that consumer-golfers should ultimately be the ones who decide whether a golf course is environmentally friendly enough to play – consumers, that is, and not governments armed with regulatory authority. Links between the policies and ideologies of neoliberalism are directly related to globalization, since deregulation, unmitigated economic growth, and the opening of borders for cross-border trade and private industry manoeuvring are fundamental neoliberal tenets.

It is not a stretch to see how such developments are relevant to the theoretical work of one of the major globalization theorists of recent years, Arjun Appadurai. Appadurai (1996) developed an influential model for understanding globalization as the transnational ‘flows’ of various globalizing ‘forces’, including the flow of people, ideas, finances, media, and technologies. Appadurai used the term ‘scapes’ to describe the various global flows mentioned above – e.g. ethnoscapes (movement of people); financescapes (movement of money); technoscapes (movement of technology), mediascapes (how media of all kinds are implicated in globalization); and ideoscapes (movement of ideas, perspectives, and political ideologies like neoliberalism). One might consider here how golf-related practices move about the globe, and why we need rich and comprehensive analyses of how these practices have environmental implications in various local contexts. Indeed, using Appadurai’s model as a guide, we can draw connections between golf and global environmental issues and topics, including: golf tourism (i.e. ‘ethnoscapes’ and ‘financescapes’); ideologies pertaining to golf-related environmental regulation and to technology-focused approaches to dealing with environmental problems (‘ideoscapes’ and ‘technoscapes’); the representation of ‘pristine’ golf courses on television (‘mediascapes’); internet enabled anti-golf activism (‘mediascapes’); and ways that neoliberal ideologies and forms of governance are pertinent across and within contexts (‘ideoscapes’).

In the conclusion to this book, we make a case for thinking about how studying golf in particular ‘local contexts’ (e.g. like the golf industry in Canada, or as an event at the 2016 Rio Olympics) can inform analyses of global issues and enhance our understanding of how global forces and trends play out and are interpreted across various settings. We also stress the importance of seeing the natural environment as something that ‘flows’ – both materially and discursively – within and around the social world itself, and of adopting a form of analysis that privileges not just human interests, but those of other species and the planet as well. The final part of our concluding chapter is based on a set of recommendations that we hope will help inspire a radical rethinking of golf’s relationship with these sorts of global and local environmental concerns in mind. Our ultimate goal here is to provoke a global Contextual Golf Movement – a movement that is reminiscent of the transformational global movements described in Harvey et al.’s recent book Sport and Social Movements: From the Local to the Global. We use the term ‘contextual golf’ to mean situations and environments where really green golf is truly viable. We suggest that golf courses should only exist in particular situations and environments where really healthy relationships between golf and the humans, flora, and fauna that have a stake in golf course development and maintenance practices exist and can be fostered. This means being open to the existence and value of golf, but also to its many problems.

We golf. We are fans of the game. And yet researching and writing this book opened our eyes to golf’s lingering environmental problems – and to potential pathways forward. We hope with all modesty that this book can help make golf better – really green – and that readers will have a similar experience to our own.

The greening of golf

Sport, globalization and the environment


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