Barack Obama
January 19, 2009

Golf courses were among FDR's public works projects in the '30s, and President Obama should include them in the economic stimulus mix

Prevailing wisdom assumes that a Barack Obama administration will be bad for the golf industry. With a White House-occupying lefty raising high-bracket income taxes, clamping down on corporate tax breaks and pushing for a "Green" environmental movement, should we say goodbye to the game as we know it?

Perhaps not. Obama is, indeed, a lefty—a left-hander who threw on a pair of shorts and played three high-profile rounds during his recent Hawaiian vacation. He is also about to dish out billions of dollars to "shovel-ready" public works projects prioritizing job creation and Green technology. Few industries bring together his dual goals more seamlessly than golf. Really.

A student of Depression-era public works projects, Obama hopefully remembers from his reading that there is strong precedent for government intervention in golf. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest and most successful New Deal creation and a model the Obama administration is using to employ millions and leave behind impressive infrastructure in nearly every American city. Created in 1935 by Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential order and funded to the eventual tune of $10.5 billion by Congress, the WPA had states apply for federal grants that over eight years produced 78,000 bridges, 650,000 miles of roads, 700 miles of airport runways, 125,000 military and civilian buildings—and miles and miles of golf holes.

That's right. Counts vary, but anywhere from 300 to 600 golf courses were built or renovated by WPA-funded labor. Perry Maxwell's epic Prairie Dunes? Built by WPA crews who spent their nights in tents near Hutchinson, Kan. The WPA also helped build Southern Hills in Tulsa, Ohio State's much loved collegiate course, 2009 U.S. Open host Bethpage Black and many other New York public courses now in various states of disrepair. Bobby Jones even signed on as a volunteer WPA adviser to advocate the vitality of proper course design.

"There is compelling evidence that what is going on today has strong parallels to the situation in the 1930s," said USGA Museum director Rand Jerris, who has studied the WPA and begun compiling a list of courses constructed by WPA crews. "We have growing unemployment, a national economic crisis and an interest in environmental issues."

Last spring's National Golf Day convened the game's various heads of state with Beltway insiders to discuss golf's impact on the national economy. The figures proved staggering: Golf is a $76 billion-a-year industry, producing two million jobs that generate $61 billion in wages.

According to the Golf Economic Report issued at last year's Golf 20/20 gathering, golf's total annual impact on the U.S. economy is $195 billion. The game also produces $3.37 billion in annual charitable giving, with only $130 million of that coming from the professional game. Yes indeed, those sweet little Monday outings and other generous causes tied to golf add up.

Yet Washington has not returned the love.

"After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed $8 billion in disaster relief tax breaks, but excluded massage parlors, liquor stores, tanning parlors and golf courses," said Steve Mona, head of the World Golf Foundation, who is working to correct golf industry misperceptions after the Katrina wake-up call.

The greatest hurdle to respectability remains golf's environmental image. Golf facilities offer tremendous potential retrofitting designs to increase energy efficiency via improved irrigation systems, nature-respecting design elements, organic maintenance practices and even, someday, solar carts.

Golf's favorite layouts are also vital but misunderstood open spaces. In nearly every populated area, environmentalists rarely appreciate the greenhouse gas offsetting, wildlife-friendly, parkland settings that generate jobs, revenue and fun. (Until it's too late and someone paves over a links.)

Thanks to efforts by the USGA Green Section and Audubon International, golf courses have made strides to adjust in a world prioritizing reduced water usage and organic practices. Though golf-course irrigation accounts for just 0.5 percent of the nation's daily water use, there is still the perception that courses are huge resource wasters and blemishes on the landscape. In the recently released "Transition to Green," a 391-page paper submitted by a broad coalition of organizations to guide Obama in solving "the economic, climate and environmental crises we now face," golf courses are never mentioned.

That's because too many acres of turf are still over-irrigated, over-primped and over-fed, instead of allowed to be leaner or, when applicable, transitioned to naturalized native grass areas. And although about 30 percent of the nation's 18-hole golf courses participate in voluntary environmental stewardship programs, America's celebration of opulent aesthetics and excess has drifted too far from the game's origins in Scotland, where golf widely is viewed as complementary to the environment.

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