WM Phoenix Open: How Does A Golf Tournament Become GEO Certified?

What is GEO and why was it so important for the WM Phoenix Open to become GEO Certified?

16th hole at WM Phoenix Open 2020
16th hole at WM Phoenix Open 2020
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As one of the most important issues in the world today, sustainability should be a consideration in every aspect of modern life. It’s not simply environmental awareness and action – sustainable solutions are those that help communities socially and economically, delivering benefit to the greatest number of people over a long period of time.

Just like all types of sporting events, golf has its challenges when it comes to sustainability. Courses cover large areas and maintenance requires resources. The sport has traditionally been viewed as elitist and expensive, only benefiting the wealthy few. But, because of these perceived challenges, golf has a great opportunity to lead the way in sustainability within sport – by considering all aspects, from nature to carbon footprint to the sport’s position within communities. That’s where the GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf plays its part as an international not-for-profit dedicated to advancing sustainability in and through golf.

The organisation works collaboratively across the sport to put in place new and strengthened sustainability strategies, supported by programmes and tools that help the sport embrace sustainability. GEO aims to help golf become widely acclaimed for its proactive and meaningful role in fostering nature, conserving resources, strengthening communities and taking climate action. Being GEO certified® has become a meaningful distinction, proudly displayed by many of the world’s leading golfing venues as many golf clubs, facilities and newly constructed courses work with GEO to find the solutions necessary to become GEO Certified®.

GEO also works with golf tournaments to help them strive towards sustainability. The organisation’s OnCourse Tournaments programme gives tournaments around the world guidance for finding sustainable solutions with a view towards becoming a GEO Certified® Tournament.

For significant events welcoming thousands of spectators and requiring huge infrastructure, it’s a massive challenge. In 2017, the WM Phoenix Open became the first event to become a GEO Certified Tournament, an accolade it has achieved every year since then.

When you consider the WM Phoenix Open welcomes over 700,000 fans through the course of the week each year, (more than any other golfing event), and involves roughly eight months of construction and breakdown, that’s a significant achievement.

We spoke with Roddy Williams of the GEO Foundation for Sustainable Golf and Lee Spivak, Managing Principal of WM’s sports and entertainment sustainability team, to learn more about why it’s so important for significant tournaments to achieve GEO Certification and just what it takes to get there.

Why is becoming GEO Certified important for golf tournaments?

RW: Tournaments can reach, influence and inspire millions of people – so it’s key for tournament organisers to showcase how their event positively impacts people and nature by demonstrating responsibility in resource use and climate action.

Events are supported through OnCourse Tournaments - a trusted and practical programme managed by GEO to bring sustainability into greater focus and integrate it into event operations. From planning, staging, to post-event reporting, OnCourse provides guidance and tools to generate meaningful results, and connects seamlessly to the requirements to become a GEO Certified Tournament.

LS: Golf tournaments, and really all sporting events, must be more responsible of their footprint. While we are noticing a greater focus on sustainability across the sports industry, there are a lot of sustainability marketing campaigns without much substance. GEO offers a stamp that a tournament’s sustainability program is a legitimate priority, and that the event is effectively addressing its environmental, social, and economic impacts.

WM Phoenix Open

The WM Phoenix Open is GEO Certified

What does GEO Certified mean?

RW: Internationally accredited and backed by robust reporting and third-party verification, GEO Certified is the widely recognised standard for sustainable golf tournaments, assessing a range of disciplines relevant to hosting a golf tournament including Planning and Communications, Site Protection, Procurement, Resource Management – incorporating Waste, Water, Energy & Carbon - Access & Equity, and Legacy.

Why was it important for WM Phoenix Open to achieve GEO Certification?

LS: At WM, an authentic commitment to sustainability across all areas of operations is a top priority. Since a GEO tournament certification requires that type of dedication, it backs up our environmental claims. We’ve prioritized this level of transparency for nearly a decade and are in the process of finalizing our fifth GEO tournament certification, following multiple Council for Responsible Sport certifications.

The Thunderbirds, who host the WM Phoenix Open, are an exceptional partner. People know about their generosity and large-scale community impacts, but they also align with our environmental goals and support every facet of the program development, particularly this focus on validation.

When I’m asked about how to successfully implement sustainability initiatives at golf tournaments, I always mention the Thunderbirds because they are instrumental to reducing the tournament’s environmental impacts and achieving GEO certification.

WM Phoenix Open - Green Scene

When and how did the process towards GEO certification begin?

LS: Once we recognized our alignment with the Council for Responsible Sport in 2013, and the value of third-party validation, we committed to the certification. It was similar when GEO used the Council’s framework to pilot certification for our 2017 tournament. Both certifications represented an opportunity to substantiate our efforts and push us to improve.

GEO’s tournament standard has a high threshold for certification and GEO publishes a verification report that includes improvement recommendations. We want the WM Phoenix Open to continue to be a leader in sustainable sports so it’s crucial to get feedback on continual improvement.

What are the key requirements to achieve GEO certification?

LS: GEO requires formal environmental considerations for planning and communications, site protection, procurement, resource management, access and equity, and community legacy. Each of those areas include a few mandatory credits to make sure tournaments don’t avoid sustainability consideration, but there is some flexibility in how tournaments implement sustainability initiatives.

GEO compels organizations to set up programs to measure and manage their environmental impacts. Over the years, we’ve faced challenges reining in procurement for the variety of stakeholders on course during construction and the tournament, and it’s taken time to improve data collection for metrics like transportation and embedded carbon.

What are some key sustainability initiatives at WM Phoenix Open?

LS: Achieving zero waste feels normal at this point, but we are extremely proud of everything that goes into the planning and execution of that effort. From setting annual procurement requirements and engaging a large collection of sponsors and vendors, to training thousands of tournament stakeholders during tournament week, to sorting through everything generated on course, zero waste takes a lot of planning across our company.

In 2015, we added to our on-course water conservation measures by supporting Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s water restoration projects. Six years later, with considerable support from the Thunderbirds and several restoration sponsors, the tournament has restored 325 million gallons of water to Arizona’s waterways. We are incredibly proud of how that program has grown to increasingly involve more businesses.

The WM Phoenix Open also prioritizes greenhouse gas emissions accounting and management, and we were the first tournament to join the UN’s Sports for Climate Action framework. We improved our inventory process for 2022 and we hope to see other organizations across the sports industry commit to reducing their greenhouse gas footprint.

It’s amazing to watch as other brands join our sustainability efforts on course. Sponsors are supporting initiatives, vendors are exploring material minimization, and apparel brands are creating tournament-specific products made from recycled content. Every major stakeholder group is making important strides to address their event impacts and it’s exciting to help drive that type of coordination.

What's next on the horizon at WM Phoenix Open regards sustainability?

LS: I oversee a team that develops comprehensive sustainability programs across the sports and entertainment industry, including golf, motorsports, races, stadiums, leagues, and conferences, so one of our focuses is sharing our unique event management perspective and environmental expertise with other WM customers. It’s exciting to see how many golf tournaments and other sports organizations are seeking support to create legitimate, impactful sustainability programs. At the WM Phoenix Open, and through these other engagements, a key goal is to drive behaviour change across fans, suppliers, sponsors, and other stakeholders.

Understanding the power of sports and the reach of each event, WM will continue to help our customers understand and improve their footprint. After all, we want people to come to our tournament and learn how to recycle right or compost correctly. We want to show fans that WM is always working for a sustainable tomorrow…and that they can, too.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin (also of Golf Monthly)... Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?