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Golf Values, and the Values of Golf: A Position Paper

This is the first in an occasional series of position statements representing the views of the Metropolitan Golf Association, part of our ongoing commitment to providing information to our Member Clubs and their individual members.

The Metropolitan Golf Association has not traditionally addressed issues that affect golf in the legal, legislative, and regulatory arena. But as our service program and reach have expanded over the past several decades, we have seen an important role that we can serve in assisting our clubs, courses, and other entities that do not have the staff or resources available to us. In particular, when we see clouds heading our way, we have an opportunity and obligation to inform and educate our members so they can be prepared to stand strong in the face of changing and challenging conditions.

Golf has existed for 500 years and should last as far into the future as we can conceive, because its benefits, charms, and values make it worth preserving. But like all human endeavors, the game is subject to the winds of history and the tides of social change. Its future is not assured without careful shepherding by all of us, individually and collectively, golfers and golf associations.

The game in America is often cast as shorthand for a host of social ills, most of them falling under what’s come to be known as income inequality – it’s a game of the rich, it takes up too much space, it costs too much both in money and resources used, it only benefits the few. These are easy charges for rhetoricians to make, but they distort golf’s reality, and we must take an active role in rebutting these false characterizations.

Golf has played many different roles in the his-tory of our area. During the Golden Age of Sports in the 1920s, Bobby Jones symbolized American ascendency on a global stage, the world’s finest player coming from this still-young nation, traveling to the Old World and triumphing against the best professionals and amateurs at Scotland’s own game. His exploits triggered a boom in golf course construction that continued well into the Great Depression of the 1930s; greenswards in and around cities and towns in the Met Area were trans-formed into municipally-owned recreational spaces whose costs were in reach of the common worker. Most of the public courses of Westchester County, New York City, and the mighty Bethpage State Park come from this era of public projects that provided employment and outdoor recreation for the many – and still do.

After the Second World War, another golf course boom took place as unprecedented social mobility led the middle class to reach beyond the boundaries of the cities, and the world’s most productive and educated work force sought to fill its leisure time with healthful pursuits and pastimes. It didn’t hurt that the increase in leisure hours coincided with the advent of television and the rise of a charismatic star in Arnold Palmer, the son of a golf course superintendent, who became a confidante of presidents and kings without forgetting his roots or losing his Everyman touch.

Game of the remote elites? Even today, nation-wide, golf in America is 75% public, 25% private. The Met Area is a bit of an anomaly, since two-thirds of our courses are private; but spend any amount of time playing at the public courses and you’ll be joined by police officers and firefighters, teachers and technicians, men and women from every walk of life who are just as much a part of golf as any corporate CEO at a private club.  At Bethpage, New York State residents can play a true championship golf course—one that has crowned major champions and will soon host the Ryder Cup—for less than the price of a ticket to a Knicks game.

The environmental impact of golf courses is greatly misunderstood. Green space is increasingly hard to find in the Tri-State area, and preserving it benefits all who live in its vicinity, to say nothing of wildlife and migratory birds. MGA private clubs alone preserve more than 66,600 acres of open space. The average golf course in the Met Area  covers more than 155 acres, and studies show that golf courses increase the value of residential properties around them, with significant benefits to the environment and quality of life.

On Long Island alone, golf courses represent nearly 20,000 acres of open space. Almost all of Long Island is a natural aquifer that supplies drinking water for residents and businesses, and despite persistent misperceptions, studies have shown that water entering a golf course environment actually leaves cleaner than when it arrived thanks to the filtering effect of subsurface infrastructure.

Golf’s awareness of and sensitivity to the delicacy of the environment should not be surprising. No game is as intimately connected with the elements as golf, or as dependent on the long-term health of the land on which it is played. Golf course superintendents have led the way in developing Best Management Practices to ensure courses are maintained in an environmentally sensitive manner. They are among the most highly trained environmental stewards we have; maintaining healthy grounds in harmony with nature is literally their job. They are aided by the Green Section of the USGA, which has provided its expertise to all clubs and courses in the nation and conducted turfgrass research since its founding in 1920. Additionally, golf and its needs are among the driving forces in research and development efforts to create new strains of grass that can provide superior playing conditions while using fewer resources.

Private golf and country clubs are an easy target for populist anger, but those clubs provide considerable benefit to their communities and to the public as a whole. Along with the environmental positives of the open green space that golf courses provide, there are considerable economic benefits: In the heart of the summer golf season, between full-time, part-time, and seasonal workers, the MGA’s 240 private clubs employ more than 31,000 people. Clubs support hundreds of local vendors; private clubs across the Met Area collectively generate roughly $2.1 billion annually in direct economic impact. Because of the quality and prestige of our courses, we frequently host major championships and PGA Tour events that generate more than 2,000 temporary jobs and add further dollars to that impact. The average MGA private club pays more than $2.345 million per year in aggregate taxes ($1,305,000 in federal and state withholding and payroll tax, $736,000 in sales tax and $305,000 in real estate tax). It is clear that private clubs are providing significant tax dollars to support local schools and government at the local, county, state and federal levels without using many municipal services or burdening our school systems. The average club also hosts on average eleven or more golf outings and functions that generate approximately $450,000 a year for local charities per club – a total charitable impact across the region of $108 million. (These figures are derived from surveys conducted by the accounting firm of Condon O’Meara McGinty and Donnelly (COM&D) and Club Operations surveys conducted by the MGA.)

At a time when many of these private clubs are struggling just to stay in business—several have closed or restructured in the last few years—two New York State legislators officially proposed a change in real estate taxes in 2018 that would  significantly raise the tax burden on those clubs. In New York State, real estate taxes are based on valuation of “current and continued use” – i.e., the way the property is actually being used. The pro-posed change would shift that valuation to “highest and best use” – what could theoretically be done with the property. Given the real estate market in the suburbs around New York City, this could dramatically increase the annual real estate taxes some New York clubs pay, and over time would likely put some of those clubs out of business.

We who love the game have a responsibility to share the truth of its value to our communities, our environment, and the local economy. Myths are powerful, and the misconception that only the well-off benefit from it—even in the private club sphere—will take a great deal of effort to dislodge. Please join us in these endeavors to spread the word about what golf really is and how it operates in our cities and towns. The MGA is determined to take steps to inform and enlighten golf’s friends and its well-meaning critics, to keep the game strong and healthy in our area, “…So You Can Play.”