Western Canada Turfgrass Association Demonstrates First Green ‘Links as Labs’ Program At Redwoods Golf Course

USGA Agronomist Larry Gilhuly Talks To Kids From Pitt River Middle School During A First Green ‘Links As Labs’ Program At Redwoods Golf Course Demonstration - Image Credit Alfie Lau

USGA Agronomist Larry Gilhuly Talks To Kids From Pitt River Middle School During A First Green ‘Links As Labs’ Program At Redwoods Golf Course Demonstration – Image Credit Alfie Lau

by Alfie Lau
Up until now a field trip to a golf course would usually mean swinging some clubs and learning some golf etiquette. No longer. As part of the First Green ‘Links as Labs’ program, 24 wide-eyed Grade 7 and 8 students from Pitt River Middle School stepped off a school bus and onto a real-life science lab, otherwise known as  The Redwoods Golf Course in Langley, B.C.

The Western Canada Turfgrass Association (WCTA), in partnership with the First Green Foundation launched the first program in Canada that brings environmental education to grade 5 and up students using golf courses as environmental learning labs. “This unique program gets kids connected with golf, not just as a sport, but also as a place where you can learn about the environment,” said Jerry Rousseau, executive director of the WCTA “We’re working on getting superintendents at golf courses interested in this program so that we can launch it anywhere there’s a golf course.”

First Green is an innovative environmental education outreach program using golf courses as environmental learning labs, allowing students to perform hands-on experiments and tests, all within the focus of their school’s environmental science curriculum. For example, kids can work in outdoor labs led by the golf course superintendent, doing such activities as testing water quality, collecting soil samples, identifying plants, doing math activities and working with local issues such as streambed or owl-nest restoration programs.

Stan Kazymerchyk of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Turf Maintenance program, was showing one group of students how maintaining a golf course involves everything from knowing how to calculate how much fertilizer to use to knowing what chemicals are more harmful to the environment.

Kazymerchyk was getting some assistance from a horticulture expert, who showed the students that a golf course can be a living garden, with everything from fruits, vegetables and herbs being grown on a golf course and able to be used in the restaurant or simply for beautification purposes.

Jamie Robb Talks To Kids From Pitt River Middle School During A First Green ‘Links As Labs’ Program At Redwoods Golf Course Demonstration

Jamie Robb From The Capilano G&CC Talks To Kids From Pitt River Middle School During A First Green ‘Links As Labs’ Program At Redwoods Golf Course Demonstration – Image Credit Alfie Lau

At another station, the United States Golf Association’s Larry Gilhuly, an agronomist who works with courses throughout the Pacific Northwest, was showing his group of kids the environmental benefits of golf courses. “The grasses on a golf course are some of the best producers of oxygen we have,” said Gilhuly, who has been involved with First Green initiatives in the Pacific Northwest for many years. Gilhuly’s high-profile position has allowed him to get more publicity for these educational initiatives.

Gilhuly was the USGA’s point man for the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, just outside of Seattle, and the First Green was featured in a public service announcement which ran throughout the summer on all FOX Network broadcasts of USGA championships. This tremendous level of attention introduced First Green to more 200 million viewers of the USGA broadcasts. “I would not be involved with this if I didn’t think it was a great program that allowed kids to learn and was a lot of fun as well,” said Gilhuly. “I drove 160 miles to be here because I believe it’s important that kids see how connected their environmental studies and golf courses can be.”

During Gilhuly’s presentation, conducted alongside Capilano Golf & Country Club’s superintendent Jamie Robb, the duo were able to show the students how deep grass roots can grow and how something as simple as a pebble can we worth $1,000. “We cut grass with some pretty expensive mowers,” said Gilhuly. “If we don’t know what’s in those grasses we cut, and rocks get into our mowers, they can cause thousands of dollars in damage. That’s why we need to know everything we can about our golf course environment.”

For Mary Polak, the MLA for Langley and the BC Minister of Environment, it was important to see how this new program can be beneficial in so many different ways. “There’s lots to see and do at a golf course,” Polak told the young students. “Take note that golf courses are places where you can learn so much and have an amazing career.”

“The best part about First Green is that it can happen at any golf course and there are golf courses in practically every community in our province,” stated WCTA President Trevor Smith. “This makes the program accessible to kids everywhere, not just those in larger centres.” Smith said an added benefit for the program is the kids see how many different careers are indeed available at a golf course. Whether it’s working on the grounds crew, or in the golf shop or in the hospitality side of the business, golf courses are a vital part of the local economy. 

Holding the event at The Redwoods was easy because their golf course superintendent, Peter Szarka, is a big believer. “We have 180 acres here, we have bird sanctuaries, we have a wonderful place for kids to learn about the environment,” said Szarka. “It’s a lot more than just cutting grass. It’s about engaging with our community to show them we are so much more than just a golf course.”

The First Green program is based on the STEM learning concept, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. The inaugural event held on Canadian soil, and the first international First Green event ever, took place in May 2014 at the Vancouver Golf Club. Closer to home, Elizabeth Buckley School in Victoria, BC, has shown interest in First Green as they are going with a ‘STEAM’ program (the added “A” stands for arts). Last summer, the First Green Foundation formalized its relationship with the WCTA through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed August 24, 2015 after a successful train-the trainer event held at the Redwoods.

The MOU comes after more than a year of the two group’s efforts introducing Western Canadian golf course superintendents to this unique program. “First Green will do very well in Canada because of WCTA members’ commitment to sharing the benefits of golf courses for communities,” said Karen Armstead, First Green executive director. “We are excited to see First Green flourish in this environment.”

As part of the MOU, First Green will train WCTA staff and directors in the program, participate in WCTA demo events, provide an annual report and offer support resources to help promote the First Green program. WCTA will promote the First Green program in Western Canada. It will also provide updates to First Green on local programs and training, and assist First Green in collecting survey feedback information during field trips and share this information with First Green.

Rousseau said there is still a lot of work to be done, namely working with local teachers, school boards and school districts to show them the direct educational benefits of being involved in the program. Rousseau was happy to see Polak attend the demonstration and the WCTA has already engaged with the BC Ministry of Education to see what more they can do to get the program up and running in the near future.

Supporters of First Green include the USGA, Washington State Golf Association, Pacific Northwest Golf Association, the Northwest Turfgrass Association, Western Washington Golf Course Superintendents Association, local golf clubs, public and private school systems, and individual contributors who assist the organization through monetary grants and participation in field trips.

For more information, go to www.thefirstgreen.org.

Energize, Engage, Encourage, Entice

by Matthew Steinbach – Manager, Golf Participation, British Columbia Golf

In my first two months as Golf Participation Manager at British Columbia Golf, I have reviewed an array of survey data and information relating to golf participation in the province, in Canada, and in the United States. While many reports focus on the common thread of “what is wrong with the game” – golf is too expensive, takes too much time, and is too difficult – I have found that there’s a lot of positive momentum.

Overall, participation numbers in British Columbia have increased each of the last two years, rebounding from a low in 2013. Much of this growth in largely attributed to the “Core” and “Casual” Golfers.


What is concerning is the number of “Infrequent” players reaching a low in 2015. In this case, a greater number of “infrequent” players are leaving the game (or graduating to casual/core) than are joining the game. Much of the “infrequent” decline is sourced to Female participation. Conversely, participation on the “core” group has increased for both Males and Females. With the majority of “core” golfers belonging to the ‘Boomer’ generation, measures need to be taken to ensure they remain energized to play the game fifteen years from now.

Through the data and various sources, I have identified four key groups where I believe special attention should be focused.

  1. Energize Core Golfers
  2. Engage Women in Golf
  3. Encourage Youth Recreation
  4. Entice Millennials

This will not be new for many who are current with the trends in golf participation. Rather, my summary will highlight the amount of work that is required among all industry partners to maintain and grow participation in golf. Each of these groups shares great opportunities and challenges.

Some, like the “Core Golfers” may require less direct energy in the short term but could present a bigger risk in the long term. Others, like the ‘Millennial’ group will most likely require high amounts of input and energy in both the short term and long term.Their potential, however, cannot be overlooked as they are the largest demographic to grow golf participation.

Energize Core Golfers

Energize: to give energy or excitement to (someone or something)

In the short term, Core golfers require less work and investment to maintain participation. They understand how the game is played and have foundational golf skills; they own equipment and memberships; they have social connections and regular outings planned. The opportunity is to increase their number of rounds played.

In the long term, with many from the Core group belonging to the Boomer generation, concerted efforts will be needed to keep the aging population energized to play the game. Concerns with mobility, physical accessibility, and connection with the game will need to be addressed.

Strategies should be developed to address the aging population to ensure they’re supported in accessing and playing golf. As this older generation loses their social sphere, how can we encourage them to give back to the younger generations and become volunteers, aides, and mentors?

Engage Women in Golf

Engage: to get and keep (someone’s attention, interest, etc.)

For the purpose of growing Female participation, efforts need to be focused on breaking down the stereotypes and building awareness of the positive aspects of golf. A unified voice needs to (re)introduce that golf is Fun, Non-intimidating, and welcoming. More importantly, the actions amongst the golf industry partners need to reinforce the same message.

There are many great programs already in place to engage women in golf, like Get Golf Ready, Women’s Golf Day, Future Links Jr. Girls Club, Women with Drive, etc. As an industry we need to raise the awareness of these programs – a shared message, that indicates that golf is a great avenue to build relationships and create connections:

  • Women’s only leagues & Clubs
  • Business and networking opportunities
  • Family time – spouse, parents, kids

Encourage Youth Recreation

Encourage: to make (someone) more determined, hopeful, or confident

Introducing the game of golf to youth is a foundational commitment needed to ensure a healthy group of new participants. There are many extraordinary examples of strong programs in place to introduce the game. Some of the programs with highest awareness are in the junior golf stream: Take a Kid to the Course, Canucks Junior Golf Week, Future Links, etc.

Strong youth development can also be found in local and regional pockets – from junior programs of +200 at Marine Drive, to City-wide initiatives in school and at facilities in Burnaby. At the same time, there are other Provincial and National programs that have widespread reach to introduce the game specifically through school programs like Playground to Fairway and Golf in Schools.

From a development standpoint, the focus of youth golf quickly moves into the competitive stream soon after these introductory programs, leaving a void for youth participation on the recreational side.

A few key themes emerged from the survey results, indicating areas that should be addressed. One large area was an overwhelming lack of awareness for most of these programs – specifically the various School Golf Programs. Facilities were not aware that the programs existed or how to access these programs, although they did express interest in learning more.

A second theme indicated that there was a lack of alignment among golf bodies – too many programs available and competing against each other. My recommendation is twofold along these themes. One, we need alignment among program offerings and consistency with delivery and two; we need to bring awareness to these programs with a unified message.

The future growth will depend on introducing youth to the game of golf. We need to adopt a “recreational” mindset with respect to youth participation especially as we look to replace the ‘Boomer’ generation. Seeds need to be planted now and youth needs to be encouraged to ensure future growth.

Entice Millennials

Entice: to attract (someone) especially by offering or showing something that is appealing, interesting, etc.

Everyone is trying to figure out how to “tap into Millennials”. They are now the largest demographic population having surpassed the Boomers. They are sometimes seen as narcissistic and disengaged from society. Other times, they are the catalysts for growth and change.

As a Millennial myself, I warn about casting broad strokes and generalizing such a complex group. With that said, they (we) are an appealing demographic. Much energy and effort is required to encourage golf participation through a targeted and specific plan to introduce and entice playing the game. A long term strategy is required, but we must remain reactive and adaptive to change.

The biggest driver to grow participation amongst Millennials will be to tap into the cost/value proposition. This includes breaking down old perceptions and being receptive to:

  • Adaptive Golf: footgolf, disc golf, speed golf
  • Alternative Venues: ‘Top Golf’ Driving Ranges, Golf Simulators
  • Alternative Equipment: Golf Boards, Golf Bikes, Golf Carts, Hover Carts
  • Lifestyle: music on course, digital technology, connectivity
  • Dress code: Streetwear, casual wear, beachwear

Overall, efforts are being made from all industries to capture the Millennial population. For golf, I feel we need to answer the question: What else am I getting from golf? What is Golf 2.0?


In order to develop strategies for long term growth, partners must commit to long term collaboration and resist the temptation for easier short term gains. The overall health of golf participation in the long term is dependent on a unified voice among partners bringing awareness to the opportunities available to the public. There is already much great work being done to encourage golf participation. Various National and Provincial programs have reached new golfers and brought awareness.

What I see as the biggest challenge (and opportunity) is for the collective partners to support each rather than competing against each other. We need to engage with the public and breakdown the perceived barriers for entry. We need to make it easier for the consumer (the golfer) and encourage them to enter the game. We need to entice participation through a strong cost/value proposition. And we need to keep the core golfers energized and wanting to return and play more.