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Off the Record: Worth the investment

By |  February 8, 2022 0 Comments

Many have asked about the economic benefit of the USGA Green Section’s research program during my 30-year tenure as the director of research. Unfortunately, I never had a solid answer but saw firsthand the implementation of research results on golf courses.

For me, the most direct benefit to talk about is new turfgrass cultivars developed at universities with USGA funding support. We could see the grasses on golf courses and many professional and university sports fields. An annual royalty income of $200,000 to $300,000 totaled more than $6 million by 2019.

Water conservation, primarily in the Southwest, was another successful adaptation of research in the 1980s and 1990s. Water budgets, ET-based scheduling and soil moisture meters were nonexistent before 1980.

I know that the research on the fate of pesticides and fertilizers helped quiet environmental critics of the golf courses. The USGA-funded scientists contributed significantly to revised modeling of the pesticides and nutrients leached to groundwater or runoff into surface water.

These are just a few benefits of the research, yet what was the economic impact? Did the USGA’s millions of dollars spent on research return a significant financial benefit? I certainly thought it did, but it was not a budget priority for years.

As time went on, the focus on metrics, return on investment and all the other measures of an economic impact needed examination. It was essential to get answers, and funding was available for work to begin in late 2018.

Interestingly, Turfgrass Producers International (TPI) wanted to know more about how people view turfgrass.

In 2018, the results of their survey became available. Casy Reynolds, Ph.D., executive director, presented what consumers know about turfgrass. There was some excellent information, but the two takeaways for me were people confuse turf or turfgrass with artificial turf and that natural grass was a better name. TPI now uses the motto “Keep it Real” and includes “Natural Grass” in its logo.

Fleishman-Hillard conducted the survey and analysis for TPI, and I asked Casey Reynolds for a contact. Cole Thompson, Ph.D., was finishing his first year as the assistant research director with the USGA and initiated the economic impact project. He started working with Kim Funcik and Eric Rydell, Fleishman-Hillard True Global Intelligence.

Phase one of the project included in-person interviews with USGA Green Section staff and 12 superintendents to make sure the questions were sensible. By winter 2019, the online survey started with superintendents, and a lot of the data was collected just as COVID hit the country. The GCSAA was a great partner in helping with the survey distribution.

The data collected from the survey focused on the benefits associated with golf facilities’ adoption of research-based management practices in six primary areas of interest: (a) evapotranspiration-based irrigation scheduling (water budgeting), (b) soil moisture sensing, (c) best management practices that reduce nonpoint source pollution by fertilizers and pesticides, (d) putting green construction techniques, (e) naturalized roughs and (f) improved turfgrass cultivars.

Thompson and Don Kridel, Ph.D., worked with the survey results and developed economic models to estimate the economic impact of the USGA investment in research. The first peer-reviewed article appears in the International Turfgrass Society Research Journal (see https://doi.org/10.1002/its2.91) and focuses on the first three areas.

The golf industry has adopted all three research-based management practices with an estimated annual financial benefit of $1.03 billion. The benefits of the research were made possible by the dedicated service of the Turfgrass and Environmental Research Committee, the countless scientists who have tirelessly conducted experiments, the USGA Executive Committee and senior leaders, Green Section staff and, of course, the companies and golf course superintendents who apply research and ultimately reduce resource use on golf courses.

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