By Tjeerd de Zwaan
In 2018, the Dutch Golf Federation (NGF) commissioned a report to establish the value of golf, based on the three pillar approach of People, Planet, Profit. The findings of the study – facts and figures regarding the economic, social and ecological benefits of golf - are to be used to substantiate and support the message of golf as a positive factor in society.
Although golf is the fourth largest sport in The Netherlands with 386.000 registered players, it has generally kept a low profile, and as a financially self-supporting activity, it is relatively unknown outside the group of committed practitioners of the game. As a consequence, golf tends to suffer from a lack of understanding by the public and the body politic of what the sport is actually about. This is a serious matter, which needs to addressed seriously by the golfing community to avoid damaging simplifications and caricatures. The above-mentioned report is a useful tool in this effort.
However, as the NGF found out, the real difference is made by golf being present “on the ground”, actively engaged as an effective partner in the public and political discourse.
In 2015, the NGF became co-signatory to the agreement between the Dutch government and a range of sport organizing bodies, including football, hockey and tennis, regarding the gradual phasing out of the use of chemicals on sport surfaces. The so called “Green Deal Sport” stipulated 2020 as the deadline for the completion of the agreement, i.e. zero use of chemicals.
The complexities of this challenge were evident and had a much greater impact on golf than on the other sports, if only because the latter, more often than not, made use of rented facilities, which placed the burden of compliance on the owners, e.g., local governments. On the other hand, this dilemma offered opportunities, as golf had acquired substantial experience with sustainable maintenance through those committed to the Golf Environment Organisation process.
The NGF recognized the importance of both the challenges and the opportunity for constructive outreach, and with golfing partners in The Netherlands, the Dutch Association of Golf Facilities (NVG), and the Netherlands Greenkeepers Association (NGA), created the “Golf Alliance” as their platform to represent the interests of golf within the Steering Committee of Green Deal Sport. This pro-active approach paid off, and, as a frontrunner in the discussion at hand, the Golf Alliance was asked to write the Plan of Action in the run-up to 2020. Above all, the decision to support the “zero use” deadline - initially against much opposition from its members – clearly underlined the need for more emphasis on innovation.
As proven practitioners of sustainable maintenance of golf courses through GEO and the annual verifiable monitoring of the use of chemicals, the NGF and partners representing Dutch golf earned a rare ministerial accolade during the recent mid-term evaluation of Green Deal Sport. In a letter to parliament, the minister lauded the progress made by golf in working towards the 2020 deadline. This welcome compliment, in a tough political climate, subsequently helped to create space for a further sustained effort, which places the Green Deal goal, the phasing-out of chemicals and innovation, in the wider context of the “Sports Agreement” on sustainable sport accommodations between government and selected partners, including local governments.
As a result, substantial funding has become available for the development of goods and services for circular sports facilities. As one of the two main themes, entrepreneurs are invited to contribute to the research and development of low risk, environmentally friendly, substances and biocides for the protection of sport surfaces. It is hoped that the political stick (zero use) and carrot (funding) will inspire industry to play their part in producing the required result. In parallel, the NGF continues to play an important role in turfgrass research.
It does not stop here. It is also clear from the national debate in The Netherlands on the importance of physical exercise as an essential ingredient of public health and national well-being, tha golf is an integral part of society and as such has a prominent role to play throughout the age groups and the related importance of the sustainable use of green spaces.
Thus, perhaps somewhat to its own surprise, golf in The Netherlands is becoming a player of substance beyond the boundaries of the sport, ready to take its responsibility and keen to cooperate with the various actors, (local, provincial) government, non-governmental organisations and others, as and when the circumstances require.
The learning curve may have been steep, but present practice shows that the partnership and cooperation between sport and the society it serves creates added value and benefits for both.