The Cole Thompson Background:
Dr. Cole Thompson oversees the USGA’s turfgrass and environmental research initiatives to improve sustainability and advance turfgrass science principles that enhance management practices for golf courses. This includes the direction of an annual $2 million investment in university research through the Mike Davis Program for Advancing Golf Course Management and the USGA’s new $30 million commitment to invest in water conservation over the next 15 years.
With input from a volunteer committee of university and industry scientists, Cole determines short- and long-term research priorities, solicits and evaluates research proposals, and coordinates with USGA-supported scientists to monitor the progress of current research.
Cole earned Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Kansas State University. He was a USGA Green Section intern and worked on golf courses throughout college, including as an assistant superintendent before entering graduate school. Before joining the USGA in 2018, Cole was an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
The Cole Thompson Story:
I give all the credit to my family and mentors. My parents were very supportive and were willing to let me meander onto the right path. I always enjoyed science and math, but working on the golf course was too much fun to resist. The superintendents I worked for taught me a lot and tolerated my curiosity.
My parents just wanted me to get a college degree, which I wasn’t very excited about a few years into my undergraduate studies. My advisors at Kansas State University, Drs. Jack Fry and Megan Kennelly, recognized and cultivated my interest in science and really set me on this path. I can’t thank them enough for that.
The key is probably that my wife, Sally, has been willing to meander with me and venture from Kansas into the unknowns of California, Nebraska, Texas, and now North Carolina. We’ve just sort of been willing to take risks and life happened.
You’re actively involved in efforts to study sustainability and advance turfgrass practices via the connection to golf. What specific letter grade would you give to those operating golf facilities today in dealing with meaningful sustainable practices that work effectively in dealing with the environment?
It’s really important to remember that golf facilities have different challenges, goals, and means. We cannot place them all into one “box.”
However, if we look at the available industry metrics, and the best one’s we have are from the GCSAA’s Golf Course Environmental Profile, golf course operators continue to use fewer resources, define and adopt best practices that protect the environment, and expand and nurture naturalized habitat on the golf course – all while providing great golf around the country. That sounds like an “A” to me.
In your mind, how do those on the regulatory side — whether Federal or State — view golf courses generally?
Whether a regulatory body or an everyday person, when someone takes the time to understand all the thought and care that goes into managing a golf course responsibly, I think they are impressed.
We just need to continue to tell that story as an industry and engage with all stakeholders, regulatory bodies included.
Is golf satisfactorily telling its story on the topic of water usage?
I think so, but we have to keep at it. All the water golf uses in a year amount to about 1.5 days of total U.S. water use, which I think would surprise most people. Still, we recognize the importance of water and have long-encouraged prioritizing conservation.
The GCSAA’s Golf Course Environmental Profile on water has been so important to the story. Because that work began in 2005, we can now say that golf uses almost one-third of the water it did two decades ago and two-thirds of that reduction is from more efficient irrigation.
The rest is because there are fewer golf courses today than in 2005, which is important to acknowledge. We have to continue to improve, which is why I think it’s great that our CEO, Mike Whan, has made water a major topic and committed $30 million to help us continue to improve.
Many environmentalists view golf courses as a net negative for the usage of water consumed and for the range of chemicals applied to the turf.
How fair is the characterization and what steps need to be taken to build bridges between the two groups?
I do think it is unfair, but again, I think people are surprised when they learn how much thought and research has gone into understanding how golf courses affect the environment. We just need to work together and be willing to listen to each other.
There’s always room to improve, but golf courses provide habitat, public green space, and can even filter stormwater and sequester carbon. From about two decades and $10 million worth of research, we also learned where the risks are and developed best practices to reduce those risks.
We know that, in most cases and when best practices are followed, essentially only trace amounts of fertilizer or pesticide get into surface water. There also are many programs that environmentalists would be please to learn about in golf – things like the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf that promotes environmentally sound golf course management.
Can the broader golf community wait 15 years for a water resilience playbook to be developed or can that proposed time frame be condensed down to a time frame of 5-10 years?
The first version of the playbook will be out this year and then continually refined. We believe we can meaningfully advance water conservation with existing strategies and technologies. People that are knowledgeable about irrigation will not be surprised by the content of the playbook.
An important part of our work over the next 15 years is to document that these strategies work and are economically viable at scale. We can’t make anyone use less water or finance all the suggested improvements with $30 million, but we think we can show when the water conservation potential of a strategy overcomes the encumbrances to adoption.
Given the broad range of water usages throughout the United States is the golf industry an inviting easy target for those wanting to highlight wasteful practices – whether real or imagined?
I think so. Especially if someone doesn’t play golf, it’s common to view golf courses as inaccessible users of resources. But, again, with context and data, we can show that golf courses do a good job managing resources and protecting the environment.
If you were named “golf’s water czar” — what specific steps would you put into motion effective immediately?
The reality is that there is no water czar – nor should there be. It’s convenient to talk about water and the ways we can improve at the national level, but it is impractical to advance water conservation with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Like anything, water supply, conservation, and the tradeoffs for use are exceedingly local considerations that are informed by expectations, means, and even regulations. I think it’s important to ensure that everyone thinks about how much water they are using and whether they can improve. In my opinion, that generally starts with ensuring that irrigation systems are used as efficiently as possible.
After that, we can start to think about advanced strategies and considerations like site-specific precision irrigation, establishing drought-tolerant grasses, reducing irrigated acreage, and even taking on large projects like reducing decorative lakes and improving storage.
In the USGA press release announcing the $30 million commitment to the reduction of water usage — the figure of 29% (GSCAA study from 2022) is cited on water reduction from 2005-2020. Is 50% or more reduction conceivable in the decade ahead?
It’s important to remember that one-third of this reduction is because there are fewer golf courses now than in 2005. Even so, additional meaningful reduction seems daunting. There surely are golf courses – the very best water users – that have implemented nearly everything we are going to suggest.
These golf courses might not be able to get there, but I’m sure they will continue to improve in other ways and teach us things we haven’t considered. We have several strategies, though, that are capable of reducing water use by 10%, 30%, or even 50%. Add enough of these together and you can see how those that have water conservation goals can improve.
That is what the USGA’s water initiative is about: highlighting the potential among conservation strategies by working with golf courses that have conservation goals to help others with conservation goals.
The broader golf industry is mindful outside mandates can be swiftly enacted. Is golf moving fast enough to avoid such situations happening?
Proactivity is crucial. I think there are areas with pending reductions in water supply where we need to, and will, do more.
For more info about Dr. Cole Thompson and the USGA’s water initiatives go to:WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?