Golf advocacy tips from Bob Nielsen, CGCS

The award-winning advocate’s journey started inauspiciously and offers lessons in effectively championing golf and golf course superintendents.


Filed to: Advocacy, New York

Bob Nielsen superintendent
Bob Nielsen, CGCS, speaks during the Quorum Call session at the 2019 Golf Industry Show in San Diego. Photo by Andrew Hartsock

It started in 2006.

The Westchester County (N.Y.) Board of Legislators was considering banning the use of all fertilizer products containing phosphate on properties in the county, including golf courses. Bob Nielsen, CGCS, of Bedford (N.Y.) Golf and Tennis Club decided he couldn’t sit back and just watch it happen. No, he’d seen enough, and it was time to get active, because, from Nielsen’s perspective, the regulatory environment wasn’t going to get any better for golf course superintendents.

Thirteen years later, Nielsen, a 28-year GCSAA member, can safely say he was right, having racked up a number of advocacy wins, losses and interesting experiences along the way.

Nielsen’s first foray into advocacy wasn’t exactly easy or positive. “Man, I learned a lot from that experience — primarily, don’t show your entire hand from the start,” says Nielsen, reflecting on his 2006 meeting in Westchester County.

Like most superintendents getting involved in a policy issue for the first time, Nielsen wasn’t too excited to provide testimony at a public hearing. In fact, he was downright terrified, so instead of speaking, he submitted a two-page letter to the county that outlined his reasons for opposing the fertilizer ban. Golf was on the record in support of phosphate and against the proposal.

Days later, Nielsen decided to attend the hearing — not to speak, but to follow the proceedings and watch the vote. What he discovered was that the state’s water coordinator had brought in a “superintendent” from the county’s golf courses to counter Nielsen’s claims. The gentleman stated he hadn’t used phosphorus on the county’s courses in five years and hadn’t experienced any decline in turf quality or any other detrimental effects.

Turns out, he wasn’t really a superintendent at all, but the county had heard exactly what it needed to pass the ban, which it proceeded to do. But even though Nielsen came out on the losing end, he learned a lot from that first venture into politics and was eager for his next one.

Eleven state lobby days in Albany, N.Y., and seven National Golf Days on Capitol Hill later, Nielsen is a reliable old hand in the advocacy world, and his peers recognize it. Nielsen is the 2019 recipient of the GCSAA Excellence in Government Affairs Award for his years of advocating for golf course management at the local, state and federal levels of government.

Of all the boards, committees and task groups Nielsen has served on and contributed to, he thinks one of the greatest efforts he has been a part of was the development of best management practices for the state of New York. “I knew from the get-go that BMPs were going to tie into advocacy,” Nielsen says. “In New York, people have been so supportive of us doing BMPs.”

In recent years, golf course superintendents have effectively developed and communicated their use of BMPs to lawmakers, resulting in policy wins in New York, Virginia, Florida and elsewhere. As Nielsen says, “You can write BMPs, but if you don’t communicate them, you are missing much of their value.”

In New York, lawmakers have not only recognized BMPs in legislation, but have also supported their development and implementation with state funding, thanks to years of superintendents consistently showing up to demonstrate their proactive approach to environmental stewardship. While the funding has come and gone from one legislature to the next, the message has resonated on both sides of the aisle. “It doesn’t matter which party you’re talking to,” Nielsen says. “They both like to hear about our BMPs.”

Not that it’s always easy. The interests of club members and political leaders in a community sometimes differ. “This can be quite the tightrope to walk,” Bedford’s green committee chair John Fink says, “but Bob does it seamlessly.”

Nielsen’s proactive, hands-on approach hasn’t gone unnoticed. When reflecting on Nielsen’s time at Bedford, Fink says, “Bob has been a part of our club for over 35 years, which is an amazing feat at any club. He continues to maintain Bedford at a level that makes it one of the premier golf courses in the Met section. Not only are we honored at Bedford to have him, we are very fortunate as well.”

In the end, Nielsen’s view of advocacy is holistic, and he recognizes the importance of playing the long game. “When we come with a message like BMPs, lawmakers really listen,” he says. “We are changing the public’s opinion of golf. We are not asking for ridiculous things. Our requests are very sensible. This all helps in the long run.”

Indeed, it does.

Thank you for your years of advocacy, Bob Nielsen, and congratulations on winning GCSAA’s 2019 Excellence in Government Affairs Award.

Michael Lee is GCSAA’s manager of government affairs.