Our Guardian Angel Retires

For more than two decades, Heather Hansen walked the halls of power in Olympia, lobbying on behalf of the golf community. (Photos by Victoria Davis)

by Paul Ramsdell

We will miss Heather Hansen’s quiet hand as a lobbyist for the golf community.

It’s retirement time for someone who has spent the past two decades as one of the most important individuals in golf in the state of Washington.

Retirement, though, isn’t going to be filled with golf nearly every day of the week. Instead, it’s going to be activities like hiking, pottery, travel and photography.

Her rise in prominence in the golf world wasn’t from lifting trophies over her head. In fact, all she’s played in is maybe a half-dozen charity golf events in her life. That’s it.

And she’s not all that well known, because her value has been behind the scenes. But that value has been immense. Just ask golf course superintendents around the state, or even tax accountants for golf courses.

Heather has been the lobbyist in Olympia for superintendents and the golf community, and has protected the industry in innumerable ways.

“Most of the time it was stuff behind the scenes that she worked on that never made it out of committee,” said Steve Kealy, the superintendent at Glendale Country Club in Bellevue.

She was first hired 20 years ago by the Western Washington Golf Course Superintendents Association to be a lobbyist, and represent its concerns, but then the Golf Alliance of Washington got involved and she was watching out for the entire industry. And then WA Golf took the lead in funding her services, knowing how valuable she was to the entire golf community.

“I would say overall I’ve probably worked more tax issues for golf as a whole than anything,” she said. “Well, I don’t know. There’s been lots of pesticide issues, too. And fertilizer, and water quality.”

The biggest tax issue was nearly 20 years ago when the Department of Revenue, claiming that even when something is given away for free there needs to be a state sales tax collected on that item, wanted to start collecting sales tax from golf courses after they gave away free rounds of golf for a junior program, or a high school team, a college golf team, a charity fund-raising tournament. In other words, golf courses were going to have to start paying the state whenever they wanted to help the community.

“So that was a really big deal,” Hansen said. “It was a tough fight because the legislature in this state never likes to reduce taxes, and they viewed this as a tax reduction.”

Hansen worked to get all the golf ducks in a row, and a bill was passed that prevented a sales tax being collected on donated rounds of golf.

“She rallied all the troops,” Kealy said. “She got us all calling key legislators and writing letters.”

The First Tee of Greater Seattle was one of the golf entities that played a major role in the whole process, and during the bill signing in March of 2004 with Gov. Gary Locke, the First Tee made sure the Governor was surrounded by the smiling faces of junior golfers.

“To this day, I think that’s my all-time favorite bill signing,” Hansen said.

On March 26, 2004, Washington Governor Gary Locke (seated) signed into law Substitute Senate Bill 6115. Governor Locke was surrounded by students, school teachers, coaches, young athletes, beginning golfers. This new law eliminated the sales tax (use tax) on donated rounds by golf courses, saving high school golf programs, junior programs such as The First Tee, and various non-profit charity events throughout the state. It was Heather Hansen who rallied the troops to make this happen.

Most of her victories, though, don’t come with any type of ceremonial ending. Instead, it’s a basic feeling of accomplishment, and sometimes for all parties involved.

In 2011, there was a bill going through the legislature set to prohibit turf fertilizers that contain phosphorus.

“That was a huge one, because there were a number of environmental groups pushing really, really hard on that one,” Hansen said.

In the end, though, Hansen made sure the wording in the final bill made provisions for golf.

“We did get the exemption for growing new grass or repairing grass,” she said. “I do remember a couple of superintendents looking at each other and saying, ‘Ah, repairing grass is what I do all day, every day.’”

Another issue came up concerning the elimination of a certain herbicide, but in the end there were two key exemptions – the wheat industry and the golf industry.

Through the 20 years representing superintendents, Hansen spent time informing legislators, their staffs and other government officials about the value superintendents place on their profession and the environment that’s key to that profession.

“’Oh, that’s the guy who mows the grass,’” Hansen said about what she hears first from a lot of politicians before she has had a chance to educate them. “They don’t realize that they (superintendents) usually all have degrees in agronomy and advanced training and how well they really know what they’re doing, and how precise it is.”

Over the years, Hansen has loved to point out to those in the political world the research collected from a stream that runs through a golf course, that the water quality is better as that stream leaves the golf course as compared to the water quality when that stream enters the golf course.

“’How could that possibly be?’” she said is the response she gets when reciting that research.

And her answer?

“Well, that’s because they (superintendents) know what they’re doing. They’re very, very careful. They’re very precise.”

With those matching characteristics, it’s no wonder Heather Hansen and the golf industry have had such a strong relationship the past two decades.

So, as Heather eases into retirement, let us give thanks to her, as someone who carried the weight behind the scenes, who watched over the golf community, who was the unseen guardian angel on our shoulder, while we happily played our next round of golf.

Paul Ramsdell has been a career-long journalist working at various times with newspapers, magazines and ESPN.com. He currently is the executive director of the Northwest Turfgrass Association, and president of Washington Golf.