My View

Towards an integrated approach for sustainable golf

Joris Slooten, of the Royal Netherlands Golf Federation, shares his view on credibility in sustainability

By Joris Slooten

17th April 2015
Assessing progress,Working with nature
The NGF sees golf making a valuable contribution to society.  

In my former job as Managing Director of the Rottebergen Golf Course, an 18-hole course to the northeast of Rotterdam, in addition to my daily operational affairs, it was a challenge to guarantee the responsible long-term development of the golf course.

The R&A’s definition of a sustainable golf course was then already pointing the way:
‘Optimising the playing quality of the golf course in harmony with the conservation of its natural environment under economically sound and socially responsible management.’

Clear and inspirational, but also rather abstract. How to come to such a balance? And where to start?

Responsible management requires counterbalancing against the often dominant ‘here-and-now-focus’ of golfers and committee members, who have the best of intentions but usually lack sufficient knowledge. A planned quality management system offers the necessary counterbalance.

From a planned management system towards credibility
Our first step at De Rottebergen towards a certified, planned management system was participation in the Committed to Green programme, which was a Netherlands Golf Federation (NGF) programme for courses and clubs. This was an excellent programme but because certification was run by the NGF itself, it wasn’t entirely credible for the outside world.

The Golf Environment Organization (GEO) provided an attractive alternative to this, as it provides a practical support programme through the OnCourse®programme which leads on to certified quality management. In October 2009, de Rottebergen Golf Course became the first GEO Certified® course in the Netherlands.

Course Management

The quality of the course management ultimately determines the quality of the game of golf.

The value of the GEO-system became clear straightaway: savings, a shared long-term focus, structural development of natural and landscape value, messaging and credibility towards the outside world.

This credibility became the basis for the development of a successful stakeholder model: the golf course no longer as an island but as a fully-fledged element of local society.

“Triumph of the Commons”
Sustainable golf courses are the outcome of a steadily-growing process involving a balance between the development of the course on the one hand, and the natural and landscape values and the wishes of society on the other. If these interests are developed in a balanced way, economic interests will also be protected.

The finest example of such a development is the Old Course at St Andrew’s in Scotland, where communal interests were fundamental in the history of its development. The contribution that this golf course has made throughout the ages – and is still making – is unbelievably valuable.

When, in 2005, I had the honour of attending a European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA) congress at St Andrews and saw, for the first time, the pleasure of families with grandparents and grandchildren on the Himalayas putting green, everything fell into place. Not the “Tragedy of the Commons” but the “Triumph of the Commons”!  Golf as a valuable contribution to society.

Early realisation
The quality of the course management ultimately determines the quality of the game of golf.
This was the conclusion of the NGF at the end of the last century. The image of golf, and also its economic support base, is determined in the arena between the management quality and the legitimate requirements of society. Unfortunately, golf is still at a disadvantage because of an often too inwardly-focused attitude.

When, in 2011, I was asked by the Federation to help change that attitude, I didn't need much time to think the matter over.

In 2010, GEO became the national standard for golf course management in the Netherlands. Since then, a great deal has been achieved to meet this standard by many enthusiastic board members, managers, committee members and, last but not least, head greenkeepers. From the roughly 200 Dutch courses, 75 are currently actively implementing the OnCourse® programme, 52 of which are now certified (March 2015). This is nearly half the golf courses in the Netherlands. The remaining courses are expected to follow in the coming years.

The NGF gets buy in from golfers for their sustainability initiatives


By the end of 2014, the members of the European Golf Association (EGA) showed vision and leadership with the decision to establish GEO Certified® as the European standard for the management of golf courses. This gives the EGA the opportunity to point the way to the responsible development of golf as a sport: certified sustainable management and openness towards society. A milestone!

Green Deal
The pressure on the golf sector to phase out the use of pesticides is also increasing in the Netherlands. In the light of these developments, the importance of a planned and credible approach as a condition for self-regulation is also growing in the golf sector. GEO now enables us to continue to shape our own futures. “Lead the change or change will lead you”.

Self-regulation on the basis of GEO will lead to acceptable outcomes for society and practicable solutions for the golf sector. In the Netherlands, there have been negotiations between golf and the government and it seems that these will result in a Green Deal that will provide a limited exemption to the use of chemicals after 2020 – on condition that the relevant course is at least GEO Certified®.

Creating Shared Value
GEO certification forms the core of our integrated approach and provides the required credibility as the basis for the development of a stakeholder model that is gradually taking shape:

  • on matters of sustainable course management the stakeholders (the Greenkeepers Association (NGA), the Course Owners Association (NVG), The PGA Holland and the Royal Dutch Golf Federation (NGF)) closely work together
  • under the name ‘Golfers love Birdies’  , and in collaboration since 2013 with the Dutch Bird Protection Society (Vogelbescherming Nederland) – the Dutch partner of Birdlife, the development and management of bird habitats on golf courses has been facilitated
  • consultation on national collaboration is taking place between the golf sector and other nature and environmental organisations. With an expert team and within the framework of GEO, these organisations are finding opportunities to share ideas and contribute towards the sustainability mission
  • the Dutch Golf sector has taken the initiative to invest in a Special Chair for Turfgrass Ecology at Wageningen University. This Special Chair will contribute to the international scientific network that focuses on independent research and innovation in turfgrass management and thus contribute to the evidence base for the sport turf sector
  • the formation of a Natural Sports Turf Innovation Network. This network focuses on the stimulation of innovation in turfgrass management in the interface of sustainable management and structural playing quality. This innovation is supported by the sports sector.

It is my belief that here in the Netherlands we have developed a system which supports golf through demonstrating the environmental and social benefits the sport can provide.  This will stand us in good stead for not only negotiating with government on potential threatening legislation, but also to attain government and NGO recognition that golf should be allowed to grow, sustainably of course!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not, necessarily, those of The R&A.