Questions for ... Joe Steranka, CEO of the PGA of America

Questions for … Joe Steranka, CEO of the PGA of America

Joe Steranka, CEO of the PGA of America, hopes a lobbying firm will get the word out in Washington about the importance of golf.
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In January, the PGA of America, the Club Managers Association of America, the National Golf Course Owners Association and the Golf Course Superintendents Association announced it had collectively hired the Podesta Group, a powerful D.C. lobbying firm, to be its eyes and ears on Capitol Hill. How did all this get started?

Back in 2005 when I had been the CEO of the PGA for about a month there was some Hurricane Katrina tax-relief legislation being pushed through Christmas week. It was noticed within our industry because it put golf in a category with other industries such as casinos, racetracks, liquor stores and massage parlors as being excluded from being able to get tax relief for the redevelopment of the golf industry in areas affected by Katrina. After that I reached out to my fellow CEOs and we decided that we needed to form a coalition of golf organizations to get more strategic about getting the word out to Congress and elected officials at the state and local level about the economic, human and environmental benefits of golf.

What was the first thing you did?

We did a State Golf Day in Virginia in 2007 in Richmond, where we used an economic-impact study which was done by the World Golf Foundation to highlight the fact that golf had a $3.1 billion direct and indirect economic impact on that state’s economy. Virginia was key because one of its congressmen, Frank Wolf, had sponsored the Katrina tax-relief legislation. Virginia had also come close to passing a moratorium on water use by golf courses during times of extreme droughts. In 2008 and 2009 we did “National Golf Days” for the industry to take its message to Washington.

Has the Obama administration been good for golf?

With the Podesta-led “We Are Golf” campaign, there is a feeling in this administration that there will be unprecedented governmental involvement in business for the next several years. So when it comes to the small-business bill that is being vetted now, the jobs bill, the climate change bill, a supplemental bill that extends the funding of the war, we feel that golf needs a seat at the table.

Does it help your case in Washington that a lot of the members of Congress are golfers?

Jobs is topic No. 1 in America right now and regardless of whether or not you play the game as a legislator you have to recognize the thousands of jobs offered by the golf industry. In Washington, sometimes an association with golf comes with political risks, but our message has been that golf is good for the environment, good for jobs.

Can golf be politically divisive, dividing Republicans and Democrats over issues like the environment and taxes?

I think just the opposite is true. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democrat, has talked about how golf brings together people on both sides of the aisle. One of the most popular events every year is the Congressional Ryder Cup, played at Columbia Country Club in D.C., which leads to other casual rounds of golf amongst Democrats and Republicans. I think it was reported in your magazine several years ago that two golfing nations have never gone to war against one another.

Has the golf industry ever had a lobby arm on Capitol Hill?

Each of the founding organizations of “We Are Golf” has had lobbyists for a specific item, but never on the scale of this initiative.

How does golf overcome its image as an elitist sport?

This happens when the people who are speaking about golf reflect the face of America. That’s what the “We Are Golf” strategy does. It really puts a face on the game, which ranges from touring pros to starters to food-and-beverage personnel to unskilled laborers who depend on the game to put food on the table.

If you live in the inner city and not easily exposed to golf why should you care about 'We Are Golf' and your congressmen supporting legislation that benefits the game?

One of the key parts of “We Are Golf” is to articulate the benefits of the game whether you play or not. Golf tournaments have been a great source of jobs and charitable dollars for inner cities. We also have initiatives like the First Tee and Special Olympics that emphasize the social and health benefits of the game.

What role do the touring pros play in this initiative?

As the most public faces of the game they uphold the best virtues of the game, and they are also drivers of tens of millions of charitable dollars.

How often do you play golf?

Fifty to 60 times a year. I travel a 180 days out of the year. The way I look at it is if the CEO of the PGA of America is too busy to play golf then how am I going to convince the regular guy to play. I have a 8.6 handicap.

What’s the last book you read?

Over the holidays I read the new James Lee Burke novel, Rain Gods, about a Texas sheriff on the Mexican border.