Past Ten, Next Ten: Interview with Tom Mead

As we roll through the first year of this decade I've asked two standard questions to a few key players in our industry. I wanted to know their thoughts, from their unique role and perspective, on what we saw over this last ten years and what to expect in the ten to come.

I met Tom Mead back in October, a well known golf sustainability consultant/ turfgrass expert from Traverse City Michigan. Later that month Tom wrote one of our most popular posts to date - 7 Ways to Reduce Energy Consumption on the Golf Course.

Tom is widely known in the golf industry for his sustainable turfgrass practices and work at well-known courses like Sand Hills, Whistling Straits and Pacific Dunes. He's a former superintendent who has been in the golf business for 36 years. With a focus on urban infill projects and the development of sustainable golf courses, Toms become one of my "go to" guys when I'm looking for info. His extensive experience which comprises planning, permitting, construction, grow-in and renovations, includes stints at Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort, MI, as well as collaborations with course designers Tom Doak, Tom Weiskopf, Jay Morrish and Arthur Hills.

Turfhugger: To what degree have environmental issues affected your role through this past decade?

Tom Mead: The increased environmental awareness that’s taken place over the past decade really hasn’t affected my golf work that much. Throughout my entire career, much of my golf work has focused on the environmental aspects of the business and low input turfgrass management programs. I think it’s great that these aspects of the business have now become key elements in the mainstream model. I’m probably like many others in the industry.

While I was enjoying the success associated with the boom in golf over the past 30 years, I also had a sense that the business model was not financially or environmentally sustainable. I could also see that we were losing the true spirit and intent of the game. The economic and environmental conditions that have evolved over the past decade are dictating change, fundamental change, and I’m excited about the possibilities for golf.

Turfhugger: What major changes will we see in the next Ten Years that will affect your role most significantly?

Tom Mead: A transition to sustainable, values, designs, standards and practices is inevitable. As an industry we can proactively make the shift to a sustainable model – now - or we can get dragged into a sustainable model, kicking and screaming. Either way, we’re going to end up in the same place at some point in the near future. Current economic conditions are steering the game back to its origin, more connected to the natural world and local community, which I feel is our best chance for long term financial viability. The courses that will survive and thrive 5 and 10 years from now will be the courses that invest in a new business model that is based on diminishing resources and less disposable income for golf.

While I have my own vision of what a sustainable golf course operation looks like, forecasting industry wide, specific changes is difficult. Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. One size does not fit all - there is no clear path - no book to follow. Each facility is unique and the path toward sustainability is determined by the development of a financially realistic vision of what the possibilities are in a post peak oil economy.

A transition to a sustainable model is a multi-year, complicated undertaking and a team approach works best. In my role, as an out-of-house, third party, independent consultant, I facilitate the difficult changes that will be required - help prioritize short term cost cuts - and assist in developing realistic goals, standards and practices. I think many Superintendents know where they have to go with their maintenance program, but they do not have the time or ability to make a comprehensive facility-wide transition happen. A transition to a sustainable business model is not painless nor revenue neutral and a third party expert can help in minimizing the emotions and clarifying the financial realities.

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