September 16, 2009

Interview with Thomas L. Friedman

America's leading environmental advocate on how to make golf greener

In his career as a New York Times foreign-affairs columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, Golf Digest Contributing Editor Thomas L. Friedman has interviewed hundreds of experts around the world on subjects ranging from Arab-Israeli relations to telecommunications in China and India to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latest of his five books, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, exhaustively examines how environmental issues will affect the world's population and economy. Friedman also is an avid golfer (5.8 Index) and plays whenever and wherever his turbo-charged schedule allows. We spoke to him at his Bethesda, Md., home, which is equipped with solar panels and a geothermal heating/cooling system.

__Q: Golf Digest: In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, your major thesis is that we need a greener America and green capitalism not only to improve and sustain the environment but also to grow our economy. Can the same premise be applied to golf?

__A:__Tom Friedman: __Golf has an ambivalent relationship with the environment. On one hand, it's a great preserver of open spaces. Golf doesn't pave the world -- it helps to green the world. But the downside is, it uses a lot of fertilizer, pesticides and water. And this is in a world where we know that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are toxic, and water is more and more scarce. Golf could do a lot more. We're finally getting our arms around hybrid cars -- well, what would a hybrid golf course look like? Every course in America should strive to be Prius Country Club. There is no reason, for instance, that a new clubhouse should not aim to be a LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] building. If you have solar-powered carts, then why not a solar-powered clubhouse? A golf course should aspire to generate as much energy as it consumes -- golf should be leading the way toward energy net zero. The future is net zero. Take wind turbines. Now that states and the stimulus bill are giving tax credits for wind-driven and solar energy, wind energy makes sense for certain golf courses. Some courses would be great potential wind farms. Courses should also strive to be carbon positive -- by measuring everything, a course could come up with its carbon footprint. Every golf course should have its carbon rating on the scorecard, alongside its Course Rating, Slope, par and yardage.

Q: How could a course manager go about doing that?

A: You can get an assessment from any number of environmental consulting firms. But here's where the USGA could help: Just as it sets the rules and equipment standards, it should be setting environmental standards. It could create a new division, hire its own scientists, create its own metrics, and for a fee -- it could be a money-making operation -- it would conduct an environmental audit for a course on an annual basis and give it a rating. Golf courses and resorts would welcome that seal of approval, and it could start a trend. The USGA has a huge role and responsibility. It would set the standard, for the sake of preserving the game.

Q: But how would these things help the golf industry, which is at best stagnant right now?

__A:__Suppose you can say: "Hey, our club is energy net zero, carbon positive, and it's environmentally sustainable. The club next door is an environmental wasteland." Well, you're going to get a lot more people, especially young people, who want to join your club. Just as LEED buildings get higher rents today and attract more people, so environmentally responsible courses will have a competitive advantage.

Q: Golf is such a small part of the overall challenge facing Planet Earth. How much impact can golf courses really have environmentally? Are we just kidding ourselves?

A: Every little bit helps. Golf courses have great potential to be what I call "ecosystems for innovation." For example, does your golf club really need to have gas-powered carts when there are solar-powered ones available? Have you done the math? Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island did and found solar would be cheaper. Now, Sebonack by itself isn't going to affect the amount of CO² in the atmosphere, but when someone sees Sebonack's solar carts, and they order a fleet of solar carts, what happens? The price of solar carts comes down. Then maybe the public course that couldn't afford them before can afford them now. The whole game changes. The thing you have to remember is, oil and gas are commodities, and the more we use them the more the price goes up, like any commodity. Solar, wind -- they are technologies, so the more you use them, the more the price goes down.

__Q: One obstacle to golf becoming more environmentally responsible is the perception of golfers that their course needs to look like Augusta National, with wall-to-wall, uniform-green fairways and rough. Should we be trying to change that image?

A:__ We have to change that image. I don't fault Augusta. Every sport needs its temple, its cathedral. But if everyone copies Augusta and makes their course longer, tighter, softer and more carpeted, it will increase golf's environmental footprint. It takes more water and fertilizer and mowers.

Look at what Tom Watson did at Turnberry this year. He was able to do what he did at age 59 because at Turnberry, it's a game played on the ground as well as in the air. That's a game a lot more of us can play. How much fun did we have watching Tom? How many people did that bring into the game? But what he said afterward was: "I couldn't do this at Augusta. You have to bomb that ball there."

As we get older, we want extra roll. I love coming to a course and seeing firm and fast fairways. Royal County Down strikes me as a browner course rather than a greener course. Or Royal Melbourne, a great Alister Mackenzie course -- I'll bet their water bill is very low. And the good players really like a hard and fast track. It's fun. Making courses "green" in the best sense of that word means making them browner, firmer, cheaper to maintain -- and more fun to play.

__Q: We also hear from super-intendents that one reason their job is so hard is the stress golf carts put on the turf, especially in certain high-traffic areas of the course.

A:__ Consider Hazeltine in Minnesota, near where I grew up. Unless you have a doctor's excuse, you're not going to take a golf cart. So let's take the riding cart out of the game and replace it with caddies or pullcarts, or like at Hazeltine, really light carry bags. It's better for the environment, it's better for you, and it's better for the golf course.

__Q: You've said that leadership is what's required to create the conditions for green capitalism to work -- that we need to change our leaders, not just our light bulbs. What should golf's leaders be doing?

A:__ The USGA, the PGA, the PGA Tour, the LPGA, the superintendents, the R&A -- everyone needs to get together and say: "Our objective is to preserve and enhance the game and the planet on which it's played. To make golf a leader in greening the world." They could have a huge global effect on a massive amount of open space. Instead of "These guys are good," the tour could say, "These guys are green." Think of the impact that would have.

Many of us who grew up playing golf know that our kids aren't doing it. A great way to enhance the game, make it cool again and bring back some of the interest among younger people is to make golf the greenest sport in an environmental sense. Every course's greenkeeper should think of himself or herself as the greenkeeper: responsible for preserving the green, not just the greens.

Everyone needs to get together and say, "Our objective is to preserve and enhance the game and the planet on which it's played."'

__Q: Let's talk about a hot-button issue: climate change. Surely this shouldn't be a political issue but a matter of science, of facts. Either the earth is warming or it's not. And either we are contributing to it or we're not. Why such controversy?

A:__ Arnold Schwarzenegger said it best: "Your son is sick. Ninety-eight doctors give you one diagnosis, two doctors give you another. Who are you going to go with?" Well, why would it be the conservative position to go with the two? That's not conservative, that's crazy.

Why do conservatives deny global warming -- why do they go with the two? No. 1, because combating climate change requires government policy, and most conservatives hate the idea of more government regulation. Because they hate the prescription, they deny the diagnosis. And No. 2, scientists tend to focus on what they don't know more than what they do know. And there are a lot of things we still don't know about the climate. But we know the difference between climate variability and climate change, and right now the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is well outside the variability pattern -- and that's quite quantifiable.

There is definitely global warming, and man is definitely contributing to it. Go out to, say, Montana and talk to some pretty conservative people, hunters and fishermen. They know that in the trout stream they fished when they were growing up, the trout are stressed because the water temperature is going up. They know the hunting season has been delayed because the snows are coming later, and therefore the elk aren't coming down from the mountains.

You always have to remember that Mother Nature is a lot like your body. If your temperature goes from 98.6 to 100.6, you don't feel so good. If it goes from 100.6 to 102.6, well, you call the doctor. If it goes from 102.6 to 104.6, you're in the emergency room at a hospital. The same with Mother Nature -- small changes in global average temperatures have a huge climate effect.

Remember, the difference between the world frozen over, in an ice ball, and the warming period we're in now is just 6 degrees centigrade. A change of just 1 degree can have a huge effect.

When the climate changes, how are we going to protect golf courses? I could have called my book *Hot, Flat, Crowded, and Thirsty. *

Water is our next great environmental challenge. It is the new oil. How are we going to preserve this sport unless we are designing and maintaining golf courses that are energy net zero, carbon net zero and water net zero? Or ideally, energy positive, carbon positive and water positive, where they are taking out more than they are using. I belong to a club that tries to recycle as much water as possible.

And by the way, what if we're wrong and there is no climate change? Well, by doing everything possible to address it, we will still use less water, stimulate new energy savings and, in time, money-saving technologies, enjoy cleaner air, and preserve more forests and trees and animals.

Your golf course and its wider environment will be more sustainable and attractive. Your members will be healthier and feel better about their game's impact on the environment. Tell me what the downside is.

It's not just win, win. It's win, win, win, win, win, OK?