When golf goes to Washington
Illustration by Lou Beach
A golf course is not a massage parlor, hot-tub facility or tanning salon.
No one who has seen these respective establishments would ever confuse them, or worse yet, equate the former with the latter. And yet, since at least the early 1980s, the federal government and specifically the tax code has in fact done just that. There it is in Section 144, dealing with tax-exempt state and local bonds and what kinds of facilities are restricted from such funds. Specifically, the law of the land reads:
“No portion … is to be used to provide (including the provision of land for) any private or commercial golf course, country club, massage parlor, hot tub facility, suntan facility, …”
This kind of mischaracterization, which also has appeared in federal disaster relief bills over the years, illustrates in a simple and direct way golf’s problem with those who govern the country and the decisions they make that impact the golf business: Golf quite simply cannot rest in getting its message right in the halls of government.
Last month’s National Golf Day, the annual industry surge on Washington, D.C., to spread the economic, environmental and charitable good news of golf, has done its best over the last decade to curb this lingering sentiment. And it’s done well. Inspired in fact by similar language that denied Katrina disaster relief specifically to golf courses by equating them with its ill-matched sin tax brethren, National Golf Day and its We Are Golf lobbying coalition have kept such language out of subsequent legislation, codes and policies on Capitol Hill.
The blind belief that golf is the exclusionary domain of the rich and white and environmentally uncaring is a familiar refrain, perhaps, but golf’s answer to government is facts and numbers and persistence. Indeed, the We Are Golf coalition was founded in 2010 as “an initiative to change the face of golf,” and that change is still a work in progress.
“We’re going to keep rowing this boat even if it feels like it’s upstream at times,” said J. Rhett Evans, CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “And that water continues to flow. Golf in my view is always going to be met at those headwaters.
“Having said that, how fast can we row this boat upstream to slow it down or have people understand where we’re coming from?”
It starts with presenting golf as a big business, or even better as a vast collection of small businesses. And small businesses translate directly into a legislator’s constituents. Those small golf enterprises unite at National Golf Day to make the case that golf isn’t just the idealized entertainment, over-fertilized playing fields and celebrity athletes you see on TV. It’s more than just clubs and balls and shoes and shirts. It’s everything from cooks and busboys to cart repairmen and clubfitters.
We Are Golf estimates that the total size of the golf economy is $68.8 billion, or 10 times that of the tennis industry and more than five times that of skiing and video games. The total impact on the economy from golf, both directly and indirectly, amounts to $176.6 billion. Based on International Monetary Fund figures, that’s higher than the gross domestic product of 136 countries. As a kicker, golf will also point to its fitness benefits and the nearly $4 billion in charitable impact in 2016.
That message of golf’s truth, as it were, is the calling card of National Golf Day, which resulted in some 175 meetings with legislators, staff and federal agencies. Golf Digest had the opportunity to sit in on a dozen of those meetings with coalitions representing Florida and Massachusetts and the takeaways seemed nearly as obvious as they were confounding:
• Government is hard.
• Getting in the door matters.
• Perception is everything.
Even though our view of the meetings showed them to be pleasant enough exchanges where talking points were shared, some golf common ground was occasionally found but no deals were made, golf’s advocates came away from the proceedings in the Senate and House office buildings with satisfaction and confidence. Though National Golf Day was scheduled in the midst of one of the more chaotic weeks in perhaps the most chaotic first 100 days of any presidency—with Congress days away from a possible government shutdown and President Trump summoning the entire Senate to the White House to discuss his strategy with North Korea—the work was efficient and productive, said Steve Mona, executive director of the World Golf Foundation.
“In years past it was all about education,” he said. “And when that started to take place, we moved to, OK, here are the specific issues that we’re interested in. So we’ve gotten much more granular in our approach on the issues.”
The industry was committed last month to three areas:
• Solving the H-2B visa problem to make golf’s need for seasonal employees less dramatic. As golf courses are seasonal businesses, the need for seasonal immigrant workers is large, and like some segments of the agriculture business, golf facilities, especially those in remote areas, find themselves not having access to enough of the visas to meet their staffing needs.
• Clearing the confusing and duplicative environmental restrictions of the Waters of the U.S. and Clean Water Act. Golf’s leaders see a new administration inviting golf to contribute more in the discussions of future environmental regulatory policy. The education and advocacy process is particularly well-timed now for golf’s position with respect to the Environmental Protection Agency. Policies and guidelines proposed under the Obama administration that would add layers to water regulations and pesticide use may be significantly revised under President Trump.
• Joining the chorus of voices in the sporting goods and fitness industry supporting the Personal Health Investment Today (PHIT) Act, which would allow fitness expenses to be used with pre-tax health spending accounts. That legislation would include expenses for golf lessons or golf equipment.
More often than not the meetings on the Hill are with legislative staff, and the search is often for a personal golf connection. Sometimes an aid is an avid player. Sometimes the Congressman hits balls into a net in the House gym, or talks about his round at Cypress Point. Sometimes a family member works in golf, like one aid’s mother who checked the golf-ball production line at Titleist. Topgolf, which has two facilities and is building a third in the D.C. Beltway, often gets mentioned by younger staffers.
But what can one day of 175 meetings really do?
“You don’t have to get all the people in Congress behind you,” said Bill Sells, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, whose firm represents a range of golf equipment manufacturers. “But you have to get enough people behind you and you have to get the right people behind you.”
From his perspective, the meetings have had at least one tangible result: “Due to the good work of We Are Golf and National Golf Day, I do not see golf being singled out in future disaster relief bills.”
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Maybe that’s a small victory, but when it comes to golf, the battle for changing perceptions is more siege than firefight. It has to be because government at any level—but most especially the federal level—can be, well, just exactly the murky swamp you fear. Bills that might sound promising can be bogged down with unrelated amendments, committee meetings can be impossible to summarize, consensus occurs only by default and often without complete knowledge of all that’s been agreed to. The challenge for golf is not to wind up collateral damage like it had before National Golf Day’s 10-year campaign.
In the end, as much as the intention of golf’s message might be about specific legislation, the mission is more holistic, says Becky Blaeser, director of communication for the Massachusetts Golf Association. Blaeser has been to several National Golf Days, meeting with her state’s senators and representatives, and she’s also been part of a team that organized a similar initiative at the Massachusetts at the State Capitol.
“I remember from my first trip to National Golf Day that the big ask was not for some kind of special treatment for golf, but for golf to be treated like any other small business or any other enterprise that provides the same kind of economic and charitable impact of other industries,” Blaeser said. “If you don’t talk to people about these issues and don’t continually get in front of them and reinforce your messages, then you can get lost and they will choose to believe what’s easy to believe.”
And what’s easy to believe when it comes to golf often is the stereotype. Blaeser talks a lot about showing that golf isn’t just private clubs, about emphasizing that 80 percent of golf is public access and that golf creates 25,000 jobs in Massachusetts alone. It is a battle between facts and that lingering perception, said Brad D. Steele, vice president and general counsel to the National Club Association. While legislators might not be overtly anti-golf, getting them to vocally support a golf measure, or at the very least remove an anti-golf element from existing law, well, that requires a special dance.
“There’s a consistent perspective from those in office that this could turn into a moment of me having to explain why I did this,” Steele said. “I’m going to have enough things I have to explain, I don’t need someone also to say, ‘By the way, look what he did for golf.’ So what we try to do is give them those quick and easy talking points to say it’s not ‘golf,’ it’s a business, it’s a job.
“But perception is reality in Washington D.C., and if you’re concerned about what might pop up in a news conference, in a town-hall meeting, in an opponent’s campaign commercial against you, you’re going to parse what you put the full weight of your authority behind.”
That’s where golf’s message has to go beyond the friendly confines of National Golf Day. No faction in the golf family works the ground game more intensely than the GCSAA. According to Evans, the organization is pairing a local golf course super with each of the 535 legislators in the House and Senate. Close to 300 superintendents have been matched with a member of Congress already, contacting them on a monthly basis and getting them to understand golf’s place in their districts.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” Evans said of what he calls this phalanx of “grassroots ambassadors.” “You’ve got to be doing it 365 days a year, not just on that single National Golf Day.”
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But are government leaders and politicians really buying what golf is selling? Golf may have its advocates in Congress, but they’re not making speeches on the Senate floor about funding golf with taxpayer dollars or creating incentives for golf course operators or even risking the perception of relaxed environmental standards. That’s still a tough island to plant your flag. It simply isn’t clear whether golf has gotten past the point of being politically dangerous.
Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, who hosted a number of First Tee Breakfasts at National Golf Days from 2011-15, said golf’s messaging efforts matter.
“It’s been an educational campaign to outline the economic impact, to show it’s an important part of the economy even though maybe not many people would ever look at it that way,” he said, conceding that when golf got was singled out in a group with massage parlors and tanning salons just “unleashed those who don’t play golf and who don’t understand golf.”
“What they do with National Golf Day every year is helpful to everyone to better understand what golf is and what it isn’t. I think it made progress. It’s virtually impossible to measure it, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Take the PHIT Act: Some suggest that attaching golf to the PHIT act makes it less likely to draw favor with those on the fence because it could be characterized as more tax breaks for the rich, while others point out that the provisions of the act could benefit senior citizens whose only physical activity might be golf. And the senior citizen coalition is not one most legislators want to mess with.
Still, political poison pill or not, no matter how many meetings you have, perception is everything, and golf still can look more like Augusta National to a lot of minds on Capitol Hill—and their constituents—than it does a Boys and Girls Club in Detroit. Mona thinks that change in perception is already well on its way because of 10 years of National Golf Day.
“When we first came here, the perception of a lot of people was that golf was somewhat of a cottage industry, and a pastime for the affluent,” Mona said. “We’ve been able to completely change that where people view it as an industry, a contributor to the economy.”
Legendary Rep. Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” In this case, however, all golf advocacy is local, too. Steele tells a story of a meeting some years back with former New York Congressman Charles Wrangel, whose districts never had any golf courses and certainly no private clubs in them. When Steele tried to meet with him, Rangel said “Why would I meet with you? I don’t have any private country clubs in my district.”
“I said, ‘Congressman, you are exactly right. But you know what you do have in your district? A lot of people who work in those clubs, and a lot of people who work for the businesses that work with those clubs.’ It ended up being a discussion of what golf means to the community and how that’s probably more important than those who actually play it. And that’s what caught his attention, how golf was important to them and their well-being.”
Rangel found then and others now on Capitol Hill are beginning to see the constituency under golf’s umbrella is bigger and broader than its stereotype.
“I see kids who tell me it’s their first time, and I say ‘First time on a golf course?’ And they say, ‘No, first time standing on live grass.’ ”
Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia’s Fourth District is one who thinks that perception has changed. Johnson recently sponsored a bluebird box at his district’s Stone Mountain Golf Club after a tour led by then superintendent Anthony Williams, the GCSAA grass roots ambassador assigned to keep Johnson, a black congressman whose constituency is 57 percent black, up to date on golf’s message and how it isn’t about exclusivity, that what it offers instead is opportunity. Williams said golf has to reach out more to defend itself, which he says isn’t as difficult as it might seem. He talks about everything from the environmental efforts at his facility to even bringing school children regularly out to the golf course as part of a continuing education program.
“I see kids who tell me it’s their first time, and I say ‘First time on a golf course?’ And they say, ‘No, first time standing on live grass.’ ”
Golf can be that kind of change agent, but golf has to keep telling the story.
“Listen, I’m excited to use our place as an example, how the course can become an outdoor classroom, happy to go to town-hall meetings,” Williams said. “It’s a good opportunity. A lot of the time you get the response, ‘I had no idea.’ So you have to be willing to plant a few seeds and you have to be willing to tend that garden a little bit.”
It was an easy conversation for Williams with the congressman, who was smitten with the game after a perfect opening tee shot at Stone Mountain’s Lakemont Course years ago.
“I wouldn’t be reticent or reluctant to speak about golf [in the House], and I don’t think there is a stigma attached to it that’s holding it back,” Johnson said. “I would say things started to change with the emergence of Tiger Woods. To see a young black man really tearing it up like that, well, that really opened up the possibilities of what golf could be, that changed things. I would say my preference would be for more municipal courses certainly.”
But as the Tiger era fades, golf still balances precariously on the facts of its inclusiveness, environmental stewardship and its broad-ranging economic impact. Given the criticism both recent presidents have received for playing golf, a perception lingers that it is distinctly the opposite, allowing it to slip back to a place where oblivious legislators might lump it in the same boat as massage parlors or tanning salons or the private enclaves that do nothing for the greater good. But Boehner isn’t buying it.
“I don’t think it’s a problem at all,” he said. “It was never a problem for me. Look, when you’re a public figure you’re going to get criticized for everything you do. After 34 years in it, I know what the territory feels like. I don’t think criticism of Presidents playing golf is warranted, nor does it have any impact I think on the national consciousness about golf.”
Of course, if there is a national consciousness about golf, there may be no more vital curator of that mindset than the forces at work during National Golf Day and beyond. It’s as much a one-day macro effort as it is an every day micro-effort. As the GCSAA’s Evans sees it, changing minds is a matter of perspective.
“I would say we’re at the stage where that change in perception is happening, it’s progressing,” he said. “Are they really always laser focused on the specific golf issue? I would say no, but overall the brand of golf is better represented and better understood.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly further along than we would be had we not done anything.”