Perhaps Craig Kessler’s powerful connection to golf – and the overall course industry business, for that matter -- was forged from being born and raised in Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest city, with a rich history to the game. Or maybe his passion was influenced by the fact that Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation oversees the largest publicly owned golf network in the nation, with 20 courses at 18 different facilities.
Whatever the case might be, Kessler, a former attorney and skilled player who loves the game, is even more passionate about advocating for golf’s greater good as director of public affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. And one of the most important missions for this lifelong golf advocate is defending the merits of public-access golf – particularly publicly owned or municipal layouts.
That makes his current position a match made in golf fairway heaven, considering the SCGA is one of the country’s largest golf associations with more than 160,000 members comprising some 1,300 member clubs.
Kessler started his role with the SCGA in 2010 after the organization merged with the Public Links Golf Association of Southern California, where Kessler previously served as executive director and pioneered the development of the nation’s most active and accomplished advocacy component.
He was tasked with doing the same for the SCGA as its first director of governmental affairs, albeit on a much larger stage. With 25 years now of golf-related government relations and advocacy, combined with his legal acumen as a former attorney in labor issues and public affairs, one can argue there is nobody more effective than Kessler when it comes to successfully navigating the nuances of legislative and regulatory government entities on behalf of the golf business.
If anything, the wiry fast-talking Kessler is as well connected as anyone in the business when it comes to elected officials, regulatory agencies, special districts, committees and commissions of all types. Consider: In addition to his current and previous job responsibilities, Kessler has served as a USGA Committeeman continuously for 15 years; chair of the Los Angeles Golf Advisory Commission; chair of the Los Angeles County Golf Advisory Committee; member of the City of Los Angeles’s Griffith Park Master Plan Board; member of the Ventura Golf Advisory Group; member of the Los Angeles County Junior Golf Foundation Board of Directors; and chair of the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce First Tee of Los Angeles Advisory Committee.
At the NGCOA’s recent Golf Business Conference in Orlando, Fla., one of the highlights of the annual trade show and conference was the breakout session titled, “Defending Your Turf – Courses from Coast to Coast are Battling Environmental, Legislative and Regulatory hurdles; Here’s how to Battle Back.” Featuring Kessler, as well as the NGCOA’s senior director of advocacy, Ronnie Miles, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America senior manager of government affairs, Michael Lee, and Harvey Silverman of Silverback Marketing, one thing that was clear from the packed room is Kessler remains fervent as it relates to golf course advocacy.
Indeed, whether it’s insight about staving off a proposed law last year in California that would have forced the closure and redevelopment of public courses for much-needed affordable housing, or the ongoing battle to preserve precious water rights, the main takeaway from Kessler’s career of golf advocacy isn’t necessarily the specifics of these industry challenges.
Sure, these issues at stake are extremely important and ultimately represent the livelihoods of course owners and employees in what is estimated to be a $26 billion industry as of 2019, according to the National Golf Foundation, not to mention all the other affiliated companies that compose what the NGF says is an overall $84 billion industry.
But what truly matters in the grand scheme of things is something much more profound. And that’s advocating for a much better image for the business and game, according to Kessler. In other words, changing golf’s long-standing image, right or wrong, as a privileged and elitist game/business.
“At the end of the day, the long-range task I think for all advocacy in golf, whether it has to do with water or it has to do with land use or taxes, is that phrase you can stick it up on a big white board: Too much land that uses too much water to serve the too few who have too much for too long,” says Kessler, who was inducted in the Long Beach Golf Hall of Fame in 2008. “We need to destroy that image of us. Part of that is we need to destroy that portion of it that’s misperception, and it’s a substantial portion.
“But we have to be honest with ourselves: There’s a portion of it that’s accurate perception. I think what we’ve done in California over 30 years is. …. You can’t do it over 30 minutes; you can’t wait until Feb. 17, when oh my gosh, (California Assembly member) Steve Bennett is putting in a bill we don’t like, what do we do? Let’s go to a hearing.”
That last point Kessler was making is in reference to legislation being pushed by the Ventura Democrat to strengthen the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and protect drinking water supplies for communities. In other words, it’s paramount to be proactive in advocacy because when you’re reactive “it’s too late.”
“But if you work it for 30 years, and work it for the next 30 years, so (opposing lawmakers and regulators) regard golf as an asset and they look at it in terms of data we have. ….” Kessler adds. “That shows, for example, in parts of Los Angeles County in the summer where it’s very hot, and you have more affluent communities with golf courses and parks, it’s 10 degrees cooler. That’s significant.
“Or where you have golf course surfaces that are permeable, you have clean water and you have water that percolates underneath, it helps the aquifers underneath. Versus where you have strip malls and housing, streets and so forth, you have runoff and all the problems. And you lose the water and by the way it becomes dirty on its way to the Pacific Ocean. So we need to focus on all those kinds of things that contribute to the societal proposition value.”
And last, but not least, Kessler implores the industry to stop “making a case for its own demise” as it relates to golf’s supposed greater economic contributions to society. That’s because as an economic proposition, longtime golf appraiser Larry Hirsh always says, golf is a horrible use of land.
And Kessler, not to mention any economist, for that matter, he tells you, couldn’t agree more, at least from a land use perspective.
“(Golf’s) a bad business,” Kessler adds. “An economist will tell you you assess the economic utility as something by what it encumbers, not just by its output, but its inputs. So the $4 billion (course industry) in Arizona and $14 billion in California sounds good, it’s true. But when you look at the value of the 130-200 acres of land in urban areas, and now even in exurbs, the multiplier activity from potential residential and commercial redevelopment and construction and the 400-500 households that move in and start shopping and paying taxes. …
“Golf needs to stop making an economic case for its own demise… We did that in [Assembly Bill] 1910. I tell people, who are surprised, I slapped anyone across the face, our campaigns will never mention money. That’s their argument, I say. If money is the issue, golf always loses. Quality of life; greenspace; environment or recreation. If all of these things play a role, we can win them.”