The USGA Embraces CSR: Brown is the New Green

If you watched the U.S. Open Golf Championship this past weekend, you saw a great example of a corporate social responsibility campaign. You also saw a lot of brown grass.

In our increasingly water-starved country, the United States Golf Association started a lot of conversations this weekend – and increased their brand awareness – around the issue of resource consumption and energy use. On no bigger stage than U.S. Open, hosted at Chambers Bay, WA, the American public got a view of what the next generation of smarter, more environmentally friendly courses can look like. Gone were the rolling fairways and lush greens of a traditional course, replaced by brown bumps and knobs, windswept treeless landscapes, and a style of play that was more British Open – interesting, creative, fun to watch – than typical American target golf.

To me, this is about more than golf; I consider this one of the most innovative cause-related marketing campaigns going. Back in 2010, USGA President Jim Hyler proclaimed that brown was the new green, bringing the issue of sustainability squarely into focus. Saying “we must reset the way we look at golf courses,” Hyler’s first teed up his vision for a more sustainable sport at recent U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach and Pinehurst, two tournaments that were firmer, faster and browner than fans are used to seeing. But this weekend, by choosing to hold the Open at Chambers Bay, designed by the innovative team at Robert Trent Jones II, Americans saw the USGA take dead aim at the issue of sustainability. 

The timing couldn’t be more perfect. With much of the American West in severe drought, other parts of the country experiencing drought-flood-drought seesawing, and no less an authority than NASA saying flat out that the Earth is running out of water, renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones noted how Chambers Bay uses less water, less fertilizer, fewer pesticides, and costs less money to maintain. Given these benefits, this is where the USGA can hopefully have a positive impact on education.

As more communities face water-related issues, not to mention noise pollution of machinery and the water pollution from chemical-rich runoff, can teachers, parents and students across America look at the sustainable policy put in place by the USGA, study its benefits, and tailor it for their hometowns? Can public parks become a little more brown but far more sustainable? Will more national homebuilders, and not just those in the most drought-stricken areas, introduce more natural and local landscape designs for their developments? And will more homeowners stop the springtime pilgrimage to their local hardware store for seed, manure and fertilizer, and opt for a backyard that’s, well, greener?

It’s time for homeowners to consider the idea. According to The Earth Institute at Columbia University, American lawns occupy some 30-40 million acres of land. Maintaining them accounts for some 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution, and they use 10 times the amount of pesticide and fertilizers per acre on their lawns as farmers do on crops. Imagine if all that grass was replaced by something that required fewer resources, and was actually useful. In other words, if golf courses can go brown, why can’t homeowners replace their backyards with organic vegetable gardens? Homeowners would save water, eliminate pesticides from entering the local water supply, and they’d eat better. 

So on Sunday night, while the sun was setting on the golden hues of Chambers Bay and fans across the country watched 22-year old Jordan Spieth win his second major of the year, I was wondering if this was the beginning of more sustainable, less watered America. 

And you thought golf was boring.