“Just because you can‘t do everything, doesn’t mean you can’t do anything”
How important is the topic of sustainability for England Golf?
Owen James:I think we in England golf, we’ve really embodied it into our long-term thinking. We have a document called our Tee-Shots to Success and sustainability is one of them now. And we’ve earmarked quite a substantial section of the budget to develop sustainability within golf clubs. There’s obviously a lot more room for improvement, but I think we’ve certainly acknowledged that as a game played in nature, we really need to be making sure that our relationship with the environment is as healthy as it can be in order to preserve our sport.
What are the biggest challenges facing golf in the public discussion about sustainability?
Owen James: I think there are huge issues with the amount of land that golf takes up here, obviously. Where we’re on the urban fringe and things like that, I think there are big conflicts starting to arise with access to the land and people wanting to explore green space, be able to kind of walk across courses and things like that.
Do golf courses have to provide access to people living within a certain radius of the golf course, such as soccer fields in England?
Owen James:No. If there’s a new housing development being built, there has to be a certain amount of football provision in the area by law, whereas golf isn’t part of that yet. And as I say, there’s kind of all sorts of conflicts arising, be it, as I say, about water use or access or building into greenfield sites and things like that.
Can you counter that with the argument that big cities need green spaces?
Owen James: No, not as long as it is looked at as an exclusive plot of land that is only played on by certain other people. We don’t have any such problems when golf courses have footpaths, where people are walking and can experience the golf area themselves. So I think we need to be a little bit more open, to allow more people to at least walk around the facilities safely of course. The other positive argument is obviously the amount of habitats that we protect and conserve as a golf industry. If the golf course wasn’t there, would those habitats be preserved? Particularly in the urban sense, probably not, because there’d be housing or industry. We just have to communicate that in a better way.
Has the perception of golf changed during the pandemic?
Owen James: I think Covid did really great things for golf, but also some quite bad things. A lot of golf courses that we spoke to kind of opened themselves up for people to walk on and things like that. And then the problem came when golf started again. Those people were still expecting to be able to use the kind of land and couldn’t do that anymore. Just one example: There is a golf course on the edge of Birmingham, whereby kids use the bunkers to play in and make sandcastles, which was great, but then, when golf was on the course again, it was no longer safe. It’s about that kind of community facility almost being given and then kind of taken back away again.
England Golf launched the Sustainability Drive 18 months ago – how important is sustainability to English golfers?
Owen James:From inside golf, the kind of turn to sustainability was certainly helped last summer when we had such a dry summer over here. And there were golf courses that literally didn’t know when their water supply would run out. We started having golf clubs issued with Section 57 notices, which means they can’t even extract from a borehole. That was an eye-opener, because up to then people thought that boreholes meant kind of unlimited supply.
Do you think water is the most important sustainability issue in England right now?
Owen James: I think energy was certainly a big topic last year when we had the energy crisis and prices all of a sudden went through the roof. Golf clubs have kind of got a handle on that now and are used to it. Water is certainly the critical issue because the prices are going to go up at some point, we don’t know when. Restrictions might come in again, we don’t know when. So golf clubs need to start looking at how they can be almost self-sufficient in their water use and making sure that any water that they are using is being used in the most efficient ways possible. Because if you can’t water your golf course, everything else is kind of irrelevant. The energy costs are high in the clubhouse, but you can survive as a golf club without having your clubhouse open 24-7. Whereas if you can’t water your greens for the entire summer, then the golf club won’t survive. And as brutal as it sounds, we’re kind of at that point now where we do need golf clubs to really start taking it seriously and kind of looking at everything that they can do to maximize water efficiency.
Do club representatives understand the urgency of the matter?
Owen James: We have some clubs which are doing some amazing projects and looking at how they can finance these reservoir developments and rainwater harvesting projects and then we have clubs, which set other priorities. But it is important to remember that you can have the nicest carpet in the world in your clubhouse but if you can’t water your greens then long-term it’s not a financially viable option.
Why would a captain of a team at the golf club advocate for better water management?
Owen James: What better legacy than to say: Well, I was the kind of person that drove the project to have a reservoir put in. Okay, it wasn’t completed in my captain’s year, but we did kind of the legwork and we’ve actually future-proofed the golf club.
From November, every development in England must have a ten percent increase in biodiversity – a big opportunity for golf courses?
Owen James: Yes, I think, if companies can’t do it on site, then they have to pay somebody else to do it for them. Golf clubs might be able to benefit from that in quite a big way.
Obviously, with sort of 50% of land being out of play there are options for big biodiversity gain there and potential investment. And although that’s hugely exciting, it’s also a little bit worrying if companies are not managing their own sustainability in-house. So again, we have to balance the investment with the sustainability credentials and make sure that we’re safeguarding golf, but also the environment.
How do you see the future of golf?
Owen James: We need to make sure that whatever we’re trying to do has got sustainability and the environment at the forefront of the thinking. There are things that will have to change quite substantially and it’s about making those big decisions but making sure that the game that we love can still be played in 10, 20, 30 years time in the same way. We also have to think about the economic cases of sustainability. Clubs that are making sustainable changes, can save money for example by saving water. But for me personally the biggest message to the clubs, that I am trying to drive home at the moment is: just because you cant do everything, doesn’t mean you cant to anything.