First Green merges with GCSAA

by Jeff Shelley

Initially announced at the Golf Industry Show in February, Bellevue, Wash.-based First Green Foundation is moving forward with merging with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA).

A memorandum of understanding has been signed by the two groups, with First Green to be under the umbrella of the GCSAA’s philanthropic organization, the Environmental Institute for Golf (EIFG).

The GCSAA has an expansive network of green-industry leaders with 99 chapters in North America and members in 78 countries. Its partnership with First Green will increase the 15,000-plus students the program has already hosted on its field trips since its inception in 1997.

“As one of the world’s leading environmental education programs utilizing golf courses, First Green provides an ideal platform for GCSAA members to further strengthen ties with their communities,” said Rhett Evans, GCSAA chief executive officer.

The merger was finalized July 31, 2018. The move will enable First Green to grow quickly around the U.S. and worldwide.

“We are very excited to find a home with GCSAA, since we share similar missions and goals – to promote the environmental benefits of golf courses,” said Dr. Karen Armstead, Ph.D., First Green’s executive director. “Further, the EIFG supports research that enables golf courses to increase environmental stewardship, and through GCSAA’s regional reps and local chapters, First Green will gain a larger footprint, nationally and globally.”

First Green was co-founded by Bill Meyer, a longtime backer of amateur golf in the Northwest, and then-Overlake Golf & Country Club superintendent Jeff Gullikson (now at Kalispel Golf & Country Club in Spokane).

Its original tag line was “Links as Labs,” and over its 21 years has brought students on field trips to golf courses to conduct STEM learning experiments.

With golf course superintendents utilizing their knowledge in hands-on teaching of science-class students about turf, soils, water usage, conservation efforts and habitat management, First Green is the only program of its kind in the world.

The nonprofit has perennially received strong regional support from the WSGA, the Northwest Turfgrass Association as well as Seattle-area clubs. In the past few years, it has expanded around the U.S., thanks to in-kind efforts of the GCSAA and financial support from the USGA. The latter included a public service announcement aired during all USGA championships on FOX over a three-year period, resulting in millions of worldwide “impressions” of First Green.

With its eight field staff members around the U.S., the GCSAA is well-positioned to expand the STEM-learning program. The USGA will continue to be involved as well, helping introduce First Green into communities nationwide.

The Western Canada Turfgrass Association has also been particularly active. It has had a three-year-old MOU with First Green to launch and support programs in Western Canada as well as teaching workshops in the eastern half of the country.

Additionally, First Green has received interest from Scandinavian countries, the Far East, Australia and elsewhere.

Armstead, communications director Cathy Relyea, and board members Jeff Shelley, longtime environmental and horticulture high-school teacher Lynn McKay, and GCSAA field rep and Portland-based Dave Phipps all went to GCSAA headquarters in Lawrence, Kans., in early May 2018 to discuss the transition. (Steve Kealy, the superintendent at Glendale CC who’s hosted hundreds of field trips at his club since 1998, was unable to attend but was there in spirit.)

During their time there, the GCSAA unveiled new plans on marketing First Green, not only to its members but the golf world in general.

“The response by all the staff was incredible,” said Shelley of the two-day session with the GCSAA and EIFG. “Everyone there is so excited about what First Green has accomplished and how much more the program can grow. Personally, it’s been wonderful working with the folks on our small but gifted Pacific Northwest crew. I will miss the near-daily conversations and strategy sessions with them. But turning over First Green’s reins to such a respected and global organization as the GCSAA is one of the highlights of my 31 years in golf.”

Everyone associated with First Green is thrilled with the merger.

“As a longtime advocate and fan of the First Green Foundation, I have always felt that it needed to be within GCSAA in order to reach a bigger audience,” said Phipps. “Since becoming a First Green board member in 2012, along with joining the GCSAA as the Northwest region field staff representative, the connection with GCSAA became even more evident. Today, I couldn’t be more pleased with the direction GCSAA is headed with the program and am confident First Green will have an impact greater than we ever imagined.”

Added McKay: “I believe First Green is now going to skyrocket! The GCSAA will have more superintendents who will invite teachers to their courses for field trips. And more students will be able to learn STEM activities in an outdoor setting, the ultimate goal of First Green.”

Kealy feels the merger is a significant step for the program, saying, “The First Green management team has worked hard to develop the program so it could be launched on a nationwide scale. GCSAA has the resources to introduce the program to superintendents in all 50 states and actively support their participation. Our message that golf is good for the environment and the surrounding community will be spread to a new generation of kids, parents and teachers.”

Steve Kealy, the superintendent at Glendale CC, has hosted hundreds of First Green field trips. (Photo by David Phipps)

Added Armstead: “If golf courses are considered the ‘lungs of the city,’ then First Green can be seen as the heartbeat of future golfers. First Green is deeply grateful to all who have helped to resource and grow the organization. We are delighted to watch how GCSAA will continue to expand its programs and impact.”

The positive feelings about the merger extend to the GCSAA’s leader and throughout the ranks of the association and its partners.

“Since the announcement of GCSAA’s partnership with First Green, the response from our members and the industry has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic,” noted Evans. “We are looking forward to using our resources and network to expand First Green’s reach. First Green not only offers students an innovative STEM learning experience, but it also offers GCSAA members the opportunity to introduce students to the golf industry.

“As part of its mission, GCSAA is committed to enhancing the growth of the game of golf. First Green will help us accomplish that by giving superintendents another platform to share golf’s many positive benefits with young people.”

Jeff Shelley was the board president of First Green for seven years. He has written and published nine books as well as numerous articles for print and online media over the past 31 years. Among his titles are three editions of “Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest.” He was also co-author (with Michael Riste) and publisher of “Championships & Friendships: The First 100 Years of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association.” The Seattle resident also co-founded the Northwest Golf Media Association.