People in Golf - Dr. Cole Thompson

Dr Cole Thompson

No singular issue impacts the future of golf more than water usage: more and more demands are being placed on governments around the world to deal with this growing topic of importance.

Which needs come first and how much of a percentage will be allotted are now areas of growing debate.

Those within the golf community are moving swiftly ahead with a proactive approach, showcasing a combination of awareness and planned action.

The continuing pipeline of water is an escalating topic of emphasis and for the 21st century will be the most importance topic for all groups that operate through the broader global golf community. 

The interview with Dr. Cole Thompson outlines the investment being made by the United States Golf Association (USGA) and how such efforts will provide a far clearer roadmap on the crucial choices that will need to be made in the years to come. 



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. With input from a volunteer committee, 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 as an assistant golf course superintendent before entering graduate school. Before joining the USGA in 2018, Cole held faculty positions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.

You are 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 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 naturalised 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 amounts to about 1.5 days of total U.S. water use, which I think would surprise most people. Still, we recognise the importance of water and have long-encouraged prioritising conservation. 

We have to continue to improve, which is why I think it’s great that our CEO, Mike Whan, has reinvigorated the USGA’s focus on water 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 characterisation 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, 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.

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 who 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.

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. It’s important to ensure that everyone thinks about how much water they are using and whether they can improve.

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. 

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 go to:

Course Care (

Our Commitment to Helping Golf Courses Use Less Water (

Golf Course Environmental Profile | GCSAA

BMP Planning Guide | GCSAA

ACSP for Golf - Audubon International