For John D. Rockefeller, Golf Was Life

Biographer Ron Chernow explains why the 19th century mogul became such a golf fanatic: Without it, he was sure he'd die

Where did CEOs' fascination with golf begin? With no less a figure than John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil. History's first billionaire, whose company was the subject of a massive government antitrust case at the turn of the 20th century, was consumed with golf, an attitude echoed ever since and embraced by 21st century giants from GE's Jack Welch to Microsoft's Bill Gates. The 19th-century mogul had time-and-motion studies done of his swing at a time when motion pictures were cutting-edge technology, and he built golf courses on the grounds of three of his four estates.

To explore the connection between golf and the executive lifestyle, BusinessWeek Online asked Ron Chernow, author of Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. (Random House, 1998), to make sense of Rockefeller's obsession with golf -- and why CEOs are so engrossed by the sport. Winner of the National Book Award for The House of Morgan, Chernow has written extensively about business history and culture. His 1993 work on the Warburgs won the Eccles Prize as the Best Business Book of the year. He recently sat down with BusinessWeek Online Senior News Editor Douglas Harbrecht. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: You say in your biography that golf became one of John D. Rockefeller's consuming passions.


He had two consuming passions in life: God and golf. He would have been hard-pressed to say which was his favorite.

Q: How did this happen?


Rockefeller retired when he was in his 50s. Even though he was a classic workaholic, he walked away from his industrial empire. Then he had a physical, and possibly a nervous, breakdown and moved into semiretirement. Because he was frightened by his breakdown, he established longevity as one of his goals. He developed all kinds of theories about how he would live to the age of 100.

He had a New Age mind: For example, his favorite theory was that if you chewed every bite 10 times before swallowing, that would help you prolong your life. And as part of this package of health measures he developed, golf was central to the whole thing. He played every day. There was this awkward precision to his life. He did the same thing at the same time every day. You could set your clock by the fact that Rockefeller would arrive at the golf course at 10:15 every day.

There were a number of things that he liked about golf. He thought it was a very healthy sport. It was a combination of exercise and relaxation. There was something about the nice, swinging gait of the game that appealed to him. He felt, if he could go on swinging on the links, that his golf would continue on in tandem.

Secondly, he was a very competitive individual, as you would expect from someone who created first the largest business empire and then the largest philanthropic empire. This isn't someone who did things by halves. And I think the part about competing against himself was the side that appealed to him most. He had these thick little books where he recorded all of his scores, in the same way he closely monitored his business dealings.

One caddy's only role was to say, "Mr. Rockefeller, keep your head down"

Q: How good a golfer was he?


He was very good. Not great -- I can't remember his handicap -- but he played a fairly good game well into his 80s and even into his early 90s. He would just cut down on the number of holes he played. He was very interested in the notion of rhythm, that you both expend energy and conserve energy. He also was the ultimate problem solver. I don't know that he was the smartest businessman who ever lived, but he had this uncanny ability to identify a goal and then achieve it.

He had possibly the first time-and-motion studies ever made of his game [on motion-picture film]. He studied these films intently, noticing certain flaws, one of which was that at a certain point in his swing, he lifted his head. So he had a caddy whose only role was to say, "Mr. Rockefeller, keep your head down," whenever he addressed the ball.

Then he had another flaw -- he would twist his left ankle. So he had another caddy who would come out with a croquet wicket and actually hammer [it next to] the ankle, into the ground, to keep his foot planted there. I'm not a golfer, but I can't understand how he didn't break his ankle. In some pictures, he looks like a caveman swatting. His wasn't a graceful stroke. But he got the job done.

Q: That's the essence of golf.


In the beginning, the walking was important to him. Then, in later years, instead of walking, he would mount a bicycle, and caddies would push the bicycle so he didn't have to waste any precious energy. One of the caddies would carry a thermos with a homemade milk-and-barley brew, which was supposed to energize him. He was a very eccentric-looking figure. You can imagine this very ancient-looking man out there on a bicycle.

He wore comical hats with flaps coming down over his ears. He was also partial to goggles on the golf course and huge, full-length coats. But he also could be a good dresser. Sometimes, he would wear natty tweed sport jackets and caps. Rockefeller became something of a fop as he got older. He was a big believer in appropriate dress for any activity.

Q: You say in your book that Rockefeller perfected his game like he perfected his manufacturing methods.


He was always analyzing and perfecting like a good executive [who] walked into the office, looked around, and was constantly making small improvements. The business was a masterpiece that you were constantly touching up. He was always attentive to small details. It was typical about him that whenever he was walked into an industrial facility, nothing was too small to escape his attention. Small things would lead to very large savings. He applied that same eye for detail and that analytic spirit to the game.

When you golfed with him, "you were not allowed to discuss business"

The social side of the game [also] was very important. Here was a man who had a very contradictory attitude toward other people. During the heyday of the antitrust trial against Standard Oil, Rockefeller was seen as an ogre and a curmudgeon. In fact, he was a pretty genial character with a good sense of humor and a very social life. Usually, he would be out on the golf course with 8, 10 people, who would then be invited to lunch.

I was struck in my research that this man was always with other people, when his image was that of a brooding loner. But he had a real phobia about spontaneous interaction with other people. If he were alone with somebody else in a room, there was always the possibility that they would hit him up for money. So one of the rules of the game with Rockefeller was, when you showed up for golf, you would be informed by a valet or a manservant that you were not allowed to discuss business on the golf course. This was a highly structured setting, where he could socialize without worrying. He was in a social situation that he could completely control.

Remember, this was always on his golf course. He had three estates [with courses] -- one in Cleveland, one in Westchester County, N.Y. Then he bought a entire golf club in Lakewood, N.J. Later, he bought a house in Ormand Beach, Fla., where he had to play on a public course, but not that often.

Q: He sunk a lot of money into his golf game, didn't he?


Absolutely. One of the oddities of his estates were that they were [all eventually] constructed around a golf course. It's important to remember Rockefeller was a 19th-century evangelical Baptist. That meant he couldn't smoke, drink, play cards, dance, or go to the theater. What do you have left to do? You golf. It's golf by default. What else can a poor man do?

But because of his Baptist upbringing, Rockefeller was always much more interested in the out-of-doors than the interiors of his estates. For instance, he didn't collect art. Art would have seemed vaguely pagan to somebody like Rockefeller. His houses, while large by the standards of any ordinary mortal, were small compared to his wealth. The beauty tended to be in the gardens and the golf courses. Everything outside the house was part of God's creation, whereas to spend that kind of money adorning the house would have struck him as vain.

Since he fervently believed golf would prolong his life, he consulted meteorological records, and he calculated, based in these four different places, how he could maximize the number of days of golf he could play, based on the weather. So he would move to his different courses as a sun worshipper would follow the sun.

This was more than just a game to him. There was a golf pro helping him in Westchester in the early 1900s. Rockefeller called him and said, "Would you like to play golf?" The pro replied, "Are you absolutely mad? It's snowing outside." But the pro showed up, and there was this emerald green golf course carved out of the snow. Rockefeller had teams of people out there clearing the snow off for him. It's a funny story, but there's a compulsive side to all this. Rockefeller was really afraid that, if he broke the routine, he would die.

Collecting "art would have seemed vaguely pagan to somebody like Rockefeller"

In a single year, he spent as much as $500,000 on golf. In today's money, figure a multiple of at least 15 -- many millions of dollars. Keep in mind he was very frugal. For Rockefeller, this was a most extraordinary splurge. And it became so much part of his personality, the course became a stage on which he would perform. He would lead other golfers in a hymn, for example. Or he would invite young ladies out with him on the golf course. Nobody noticed it until his wife died, but Rockefeller had an eye for the ladies later in life. He could do the eccentric geezer act as well as the ferocious monopolist.

Q: Why is it that people who attain the status of a John D. Rockefeller -- whether they be captains of old industry, like Jack Welch of GE, or titans of high tech, such as Microsoft's Bill Gates or Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy -- are so attracted to this game?


I'm neither a mogul nor a golfer. I can only guess. For people who spend their lives in offices, it's an outdoor game that's not a contact sport. Nobody is going to tackle you or break your leg. For people who spend a lot of time in the office, it can be pretty liberating to be out in the sunshine. Also, to the extent that senior businesspeople are status-conscious, a lot of golf takes place in exclusive clubs where a filtering process goes on. If you're a mogul, you'll probably meet other moguls.

In fact, Rockefeller used to meet other moguls on the golf course -- Harvey Firestone, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie. Also, it's among the few sports where you can carry on an extended conversation during the game. Where else can you say that? You can't discuss business deals running back and forth on a basketball court. It offers you the option of having a lighthearted, superficial conversation, as Rockefeller demanded, or a serious conversation. And you get a nice tan. You can meet members of the opposite sex.

And competing against yourself, against your own personal best -- for an overachiever like Rockefeller, that was good. Every time you go out, you can do the best ever. Also, it's not a team sport. You can't picture Rockefeller in a team sport, which has a leavening quality to it. You can very much be the maestro of the morning. On the golf course, it's the sport of kings.

Golf was almost a principle of life to Rockefeller. He budgeted his days so there would be periods of exercise, periods of rest, periods of being alone, periods of socializing. Rockefeller was always striving for balance, and golf is a very balanced game. There's a nice leisurely pace to it, and at the end, there is relaxation. This conversation makes me want to go out and learn the game myself.

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