‘Greening’ the Playing Green with USGA Green Section’s Dr. Kimberly Erusha

October 16, 2015

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Sports Alliance edition of Green Is Good in beautiful downtown Chicago, and we’re so honored to have with us today Dr. Kimberly Erusha. She is the Managing Director of the USGA – that is the United States Golf Association. Welcome to Green Is Good. Kimberly Erusha: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. John Shegerian: Now, before we get talking about one of the greenest sports ever – golf – and the USGA and all the great work you’re doing there, I’d like you to please share a little bit about your journey, your story. How did you become the managing director of the USGA, and what did your sustainability journey look like growing up and things of that such? Kimberly Erusha: Well, it’s an interesting way you get involved in a sport, and you never know how that journey is going to take you, there is no doubt about that. John Shegerian: Right. Kimberly Erusha: I remember I was a horticulture major in college, and people always say, “Well, how did you get into horticulture?” It was one of those where every year my mom always bought me one of these punch-and-grow kits, where you used to punch the holes in the top of the plastic and then you’d plant your seeds in the little containers and let them grow and then put them into the garden, so that was always my introduction into horticulture, which got me interested in it. John Shegerian: Wow. Kimberly Erusha: And in college, it was one of those where my advisor was in turf grass management and the jobs just naturally evolved that way, which eventually led me to the USGA. John Shegerian: How many years ago did you join the USGA? Kimberly Erusha: It will be 25 years at the end of this year so I’ve been with them awhile. John Shegerian: You’ve been with them awhile. So when you joined the USGA, what was the role you had then and how did that evolve? Kimberly Erusha: When I joined them, I was actually hired to be a technical writer for them. John Shegerian: OK. Kimberly Erusha: I had done my Master’s and PhD in Turf Grass Management and had done a lot of work in extension when I was going through school, so it was to take our research information and then to translate that into the layman’s language. John Shegerian: Interesting. Kimberly Erusha: That’s where it evolved from. Started there, and really got a lot of great exposure to many different things that the USGA did, and took on the role of managing director for the Green Section about four years ago. John Shegerian: For our listeners and viewers out there, to find more about all the great work you’re doing at the USGA, it’s www.USGA.org. Talk a little bit about the greening of the USGA. Obviously, just from a laymen’s perspective, it looks like a very amazing opportunity to be green. Kimberly Erusha: Absolutely. John Shegerian: With all the gorgeous grass that we’ve seen and everything else. The superintendents at each course have an important role to play. How do you manage the greening of the USGA? And talk a little bit about the journey itself, the beginning and where you are today in terms of making the golf industry more sustainable. Kimberly Erusha: Well, the USGA, as an organization, is an interesting body. What we really do as an organization is we write the rules of golf in cooperation with the RNA. John Shegerian: Wow. Kimberly Erusha: We have a handicap system that helps golfers of all levels play against each other. In addition to the rules of golf, we do all the equipment testing. So that is really on the governance side of the game of golf. John Shegerian: Right. Kimberly Erusha: But another part that people really don’t know about the USGA is we also have a department called the “Green Section,” which is the group that I’m with. John Shegerian: OK. Kimberly Erusha: And that is the ergonomic or working with superintendents on how golf courses are managed. So we really recognize that not only do you have to bring golfers into the game of golf, but you have to have the balance of having great golf facilities for golfers to play at, and that’s where we’re at in that part of the organization – and we have to make sure that they’re not only sustainable on the environmental front, but they also have to be economically viable as a business as well, and it’s important about how do you find that balance. John Shegerian: Now, for a layman, like me, about golf – I’m a huge fan, but I’m not a big golf player – how many courses does the USGA have sort of governance over in the United States or the world? How big is your reach? Kimberly Erusha: Well, we work cooperatively with the RNA, and so that is golf courses around the world. John Shegerian: Wow. Kimberly Erusha: For the USGA, we do golf courses in the United States, in Canada and in Mexico, and what we are trying to do is, it’s really important that we believe that to be able to manage golf facilities it has to be based on good science. And that’s why since the Green Section was started back in 1920, the start of that was for the purpose of research and it was to develop new grasses for the game of golf that are better suited for the environment. We want them to use less water, less pesticides and to be able to withstand environmental stresses, and that’s where we’re trying to find that balance. John Shegerian: This is fascinating. So you’re saying that the USGA – way before it was cool to be green and people were driving hybrids and Teslas and everything else that we see going on right now in the sustainability revolution, back in the 1920s – the USGA was already onto this and the importance of running a sustainable golf course. Kimberly Erusha: Yes. We didn’t call it that at that time. John Shegerian: No. Kimberly Erusha: We look at that kind of terminology of where it is now, but when you look back over the history of the organization, that’s really what we’ve been trying to do is to make sure that we’ve got a great environment for the game of golf. And we know that you’ve got to balance those costs to be able to have a great golf facility, to be able to have high quality playing surfaces. John Shegerian: Wow. Kimberly Erusha: And the interesting thing that comes out of a lot of that research is, although we’re doing research specifically for golf at Languet Universities across the country, not all of those products are necessarily going to work the best for golf. Well, the benefits from that benefits at the home lawns, at sports fields, where your kids are playing soccer, at your municipal sports facilities so it really helps turf grass as an industry as well as golf as an industry. John Shegerian: That’s fascinating. So what initiatives have you been managing and have been getting – so to speak – traction in terms of sustainability in the golf industry at the USGA? What are some of your more interesting and exciting wins that you’ve gotten in terms of sustainability? Kimberly Erusha: Well, I’m certainly very proud of a lot of the research that has taken place. John Shegerian: Yeah. Kimberly Erusha: But you have to look at, how do you get that information into the hands of people that are managing the courses themselves? John Shegerian: Which are the superintendents. Kimberly Erusha: Which is the golf course superintendent. They got into the industry because they loved being outdoors, they appreciate the environment. Well, we want to make sure that we’re taking the latest research information and getting it into their hands so that they can apply it. So we have a course consulting service where we do consulting with golf facilities one-on-one to be able to help them take that research information and put it into the field itself. Well, the best thing you get out of that by our agronomists who visit those golf facilities, they see some of the best things that happen in the field and we’re able to capture that information and put it into a very broad research and education and outreach program to be able to get that into the hands of golf facilities not only in our jurisdiction of the U.S., Canada and Mexico but around the world to share that information. John Shegerian: Is that all via technology? Kimberly Erusha: Definitely. John Shegerian: Wow. Kimberly Erusha: Many things go out over the Internet. We have a water resource center where we really pool that information together to talk about the importance of managing water. John Shegerian: That’s a hot topic now in sustainability – obviously – not only here in the United States but around the world. How are you meeting that challenge in terms of how are golf courses – what are the best practices now on savings as much water but still running a sustainable and beautiful and playable golf course? Kimberly Erusha: Well, you have to look at using a lot of tools that are in the tool box that are out there. So for the golf course superintendents, it’s things like making sure that you’re using current weather data to be able to make decisions on how you’re actually applying water. But then you also have to know how much water is in the soil before I even apply. So we have things like handheld water meters and moisture meters, and there are actually in-ground sensors that are in putting greens to be able to measure the moisture before irrigation is actually applied. John Shegerian: Wow. Kimberly Erusha: So where golf course management used to be based on a lot of what we call the “art of management” of saying – we’re looking at the weather and saying the grass looks about like this, now we’re actually using those tools and technologies to say. John Shegerian: Science now. Kimberly Erusha: Science. We want it based on science. We believe that science is a critical component, and we consider it priority of how to manage golf courses. John Shegerian: And technology has given you the bridge to take the science and make it very seeable in real-time by your superintendents. Kimberly Erusha: Absolutely. John Shegerian: Wow. That is so interesting. Talk a little bit about grass. You mentioned all the research you’ve done in grass. How has grass evolved since the 1920s to now, and is it in the best place ever in terms of the genetics and how you’ve evolved the grass industry? Kimberly Erusha: Well, we look at different grasses and varieties that are available so when we say you’re going to go out and – whether it’s renovate a golf course or if it’s under new construction – say, “How do you pick the best grass?” Well, a lot of those grasses have gone through years of testing. We know how well they do against environmental stresses so what we’re trying to do is say, “Let’s pick the grass that is best adapted to that area.” So there are new grasses out there now like Buffalo grass, which can be used in out-of-play areas that can use only about an inch of water per month. It’s just one of those. It’s native to the United States, so in out of play areas, it can be a great alternative versus something that has to be irrigated, mowed and have pesticide products put onto it. Then we look at other grasses like Seashore Paspalum. This is a new grass that is available, and it has a great salt tolerance so you’re able to irrigate with water that is much lower quality, higher salts, and it’s able to give you a very quality playing surface and can use lower quality water. John Shegerian: Wow. If you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Dr. Kimberly Erusha. She is the Managing Director of the USGA – that is the United States Golf Association. Please go to www.USGA.org to learn more about all the green effort they’re making in their industry. And to learn more about the Green Sports Alliance, please go to www.GreenSportsAlliance.org. We were just talking about grass. Talk a little bit about the golfers themselves. How do you get the golfers involved in your mission in making sustainability a priority and visible with regards to your golf courses? Kimberly Erusha: Well, we have – golfers play a very important role. They are certainly the consumer of the product. They have expectations of what they would like to see on the golf course so we talk about how do you manage those expectations themselves. John Shegerian: Right. Kimberly Erusha: We’re trying to provide a high-quality playing surface, and that is going to be especially on the putting greens. But you think about 70 percent of a golf course are really areas that are out-of-play. John Shegerian: Wow. Kimberly Erusha: So we can manage those much more sustainably, but we need to talk to golfers about it doesn’t have to be perfectly green, it doesn’t have to be without blemishes. One of the beauties about the game of golf is the variation with it. It’s an outdoor sport and it’s one of those where you don’t quite know what you’re going to get every time you hit the ball, whether it’s by yourself or whether it’s the golf course itself. John Shegerian: Very true. Right. Kimberly Erusha: So by managing golfers’ expectations, golf course superintendents could really produce a great product. But we also have to make sure that golfers recognize that it takes a lot of inputs to produce a perfectly manicured golf course, and that is really not the goal. The goal is to have a high-quality golf course. But it’s OK to have some blemishes on it. John Shegerian: Talk a little bit about these golfers, though. Like with all athletes, some of the athletes are nerds and they really love the science. How much of them are really taking what you’re publishing and the information and the knowledge that you have and actually thinking about it, and actually using it to improve their game, but also to improve the Earth in terms of how they live and everything else? How much is this science being taken up by the golfers themselves? Kimberly Erusha: That’s what the interesting thing is that I’ve been definitely learning over the years is, you talk about this – and I only because I was raised on the science end of it and the extension and the education – it’s always fascinating to see how you’ll talk to golfers about some things that are how a golf course is – why we have to aerate so that we’re producing good oxygen exchange, a good water infiltration – and then they’ll say, “I never thought of it that way.” So golfers are interested in it and it’s good to be able to say, “This is also what you could do in your own home lawn,” and we talk about it even to children. We have some STEM outreach programs. We’re trying to take these same concepts and be able to use golf as the vehicle, as the sport to be able to give these concepts to kids as well. So I think the interest is there with golfers. We have to just keep learning how to subtly weave that message into their everyday golfing experience. John Shegerian: One question before we start talking about USGA and GSA. Pesticides. What is going on with pesticides now in terms of the use of them? Is there less use of pesticides? Has pesticides evolved to the point where they’re less toxic to humans or to the environment at large? What has happened with that industry since time immemorial? Since – say – the 1920s where you started collection research? Kimberly Erusha: Well, you think about the whole pesticide industry overall, it has evolved lightyears over the decades. John Shegerian: That’s interesting. Kimberly Erusha: All of those products that get produced for the marketplace certainly go through testing, very long-term testing through our Environmental Protection Agency – the EPA. So you have to think about it when you’re actually applying those products, it’s costing that golf facility money to apply the products. So the idea behind it is let’s find a good balance. Let’s make sure we’re trying to irrigate properly, we’re trying to aerate the soil properly and we’re trying to control traffic on the golf course so that we can really focus on having a healthy plant, and that is going to minimize the amount that you have to use pesticides. John Shegerian: That’s great. Kimberly Erusha: So the idea is finding the right balance. Those products – when you have to use them according to label directions – we say that for ourselves in the golf industry, we certainly encourage that for the homeowner market as well, it’s about always finding the right balance. But the No. 1 thing we’re trying to do is get a healthy plant first because, ultimately, that is going to be less pesticides that are going to go on to the product. John Shegerian: Great point. I love it. That makes sense. So we’re here at the Green Sports Alliance annual event. When did you get involved with the Green Sports Alliance and bring the USGA into the Green Sports Alliance? Kimberly Erusha: It was interesting because this is actually my first summit that I have been to so it’s been a great exposure to people talking about sustainability issues, and it’s been interesting because many times they’re talking about more venues that are standard structures. Ours is an outdoor game, but it’s interesting of how you can pick up points about recycling and proper use of pesticide products and just communicating that message. And, more importantly, engaging the fan. Hearing some of those things has given me a lot of good ideas that we’re going to be able to take back to the USGA and also apply that to what we do. John Shegerian: Is this USGA’s first time at a summit actually? Kimberly Erusha: At this summit, yes. John Shegerian: Green Sports Alliance. Really? Kimberly Erusha: Yes. John Shegerian: That’s exciting. Kimberly Erusha: It’s the first time that we have been here. Although we have been involved with many of these organizations on a one-on-one basis, this is the first time we’ve attended this summit. John Shegerian: And what were your goals coming into here, and now that it’s sort of starting to wind down, did you achieve your goals? Kimberly Erusha: I think the goals coming into it were certainly to see what the whole objectives were of the summit itself and to meet as many people as possible. It was very well organized to be able to really capitalize on that so I’ve really had some very interesting conversations – some where you can certainly directly impact on what we’re doing and others just to be able to say, “This is how broad the sustainability field is.” It may be products that we would never use within our field, but it really goes to show you, across industries overall, how it impacts so many different companies. John Shegerian: It’s always fun to hear who was the final straw. Who pulled you in? Who called you up and said, “Kimberly, come on. You’ve got to come. We’re all going to Chicago together and this is going to be fun. You’re really going to love it.” Kimberly Erusha: Well, actually, the interesting thing that came was I’m going to be speaking this afternoon on a panel about better use of water and so there was an opening on that panel. John Shegerian: There you go. Kimberly Erusha: So that’s what brought me in. John Shegerian: And who else is on that panel today with you? Do you know some of the other folks? Kimberly Erusha: They are from various industries. It’s a very broad scope so it’s going to be interesting to see how they tie it all together. So some of it is actually companies themselves and then it’s a group like mine that actually use water directly to produce a product. John Shegerian: Speaking of water how much have you followed that industry in terms of desalination and recycling and other water-saving tools? Is that a big part of what you do also? Researching the state-of-the-art technology with regards to water and water reclamation? Kimberly Erusha: We definitely do. If you think about it, we’re dealing with a living plant and water is a key part of our business model, just like it is with any industry, but because we’re dealing with actually landscape planting material, water is paramount to what we do. We’ve recognized for years that it’s been an issue and it will continue to be. For example, through our research program, since the early 1980s, that’s really where we said, “We’ve got to develop grasses that use less water,” and that’s where we started down that path to be able to really do that. But you have to have the technologies that go with it, too. John Shegerian: Wow. So that is an important part. Researching the technologies is also part of what you do at the USGA. Kimberly Erusha: We’ve got to have the balance between not only developing the grasses themselves, but you have to know how to manage them. So those two are going to go hand-in-hand so that we can get that information into the hands of the superintendent who is going to ultimately take care of our playing surface. John Shegerian: Well, thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for sharing the USGA story today with our viewers and our listeners. This has been Dr. Kimberly Erusha. She is the Managing Director of all things green and sustainable at the USGA. To learn more about the USGA, please go to www.USGA.org. To learn more about the Green Sports Alliance, please go to www.GreenSportsAlliance.org. Kimberly, it has been an honor to interview you. I’m so glad we had a chance to meet you and so glad you came to the Green Sports Alliance. Kimberly Erusha: Thank you. John Shegerian: You are making the world a greener and better place and are truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you so much. Kimberly Erusha: Thank you.