Golf and Business: A Perfect Couple

What better way to get to know somebody, commune with nature, work a deal, and improve your swing -- all at the same time

Calvin Coolidge, who once remarked that "the business of America is business," didn't quite get it right. As any CEO will tell you, the business of America is golf.

Golf and business have been inextricably linked for more than a century. From the formation of private country clubs in the late 1800s to today's ritualistic sales meetings at Doral, Pebble Beach, or Kiawah Island, executives seem to be as comfortable conducting business against the serene backdrop of a rolling emerald fairway as they are within the controlled confines of the office. After all, they're also working on their swings. The ability to play golf, understand its etiquette, and respect its traditions can boost a career.

Former U.S. Amateur champion Vinny Giles, who now represents nearly two dozen professional golfers, explains the attraction this way: "There's a camaraderie that can be developed on the golf course," Giles says. "You spend four hours with a person. You get to know him and see him in a different environment than the boardroom. There is a certain bond in the game, and everyone shares a common purpose and a common enjoyment."


  Like business, golf tests an individual's ability to set goals and achieve them with as few expenditures (strokes) as possible. Adversity lies everywhere, whether it be in the form of a sand trap or a sharp drop in earnings. Both activities seem infinitely perfectible. All you need is intelligence, creativity, focus, total mastery of your emotions, practice, practice, practice -- and no small amount of luck.

Today, golf still reigns as Corporate America's No. 1 pastime. "Not everyone can play tennis, but everyone thinks they can play golf," says Lynn Roach, an agent who represents PGA Tour mainstays Fred Couples and Jeff Sluman. "If you're playing tennis and you get beat six-love, I'm not sure how much fun that is."

Best of all, you don't have to be a great athlete to be a good golfer. You simply have to be somewhat proficient, knowing how to "negotiate" your shots, "control your pace" and understand "course management." Golfers talk like that -- with good reason. In an age of health and enlightenment, golf has replaced the three-martini lunch as the preferred vehicle for sealing deals.

John D. Rockefeller had a photographer shoot his swing so he could root out flaws


  The game has always held a special fascination for CEOs. None other than John D. Rockefeller started it all on Apr. 2, 1899, when he played his first complete round, finishing nine holes in 64 strokes. Once bitten by the golf bug, there was no turning back. Rockefeller played every day of his life until his mid 90s, recording all his golf scores in thick little books, with names, dates, and places included. He commissioned a photographer to take snapshots of his technique, a time-and-motion study that enabled him to root out flaws, and later had movies made of his swing, which he studied intently, according to Ron Chernow, author of an acclaimed biography on Rockefeller (see "For John D. Rockefeller, Golf Was Life").

Today, the titans of high tech are no less smitten than their predecessors. Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy is a scratch golfer, and Microsoft's Bill Gates -- arguably the John D. Rockefeller of the 21st century -- is devoted to the game. From Dwight Eisenhower's forays to Augusta National in Georgia and Burning Tree in suburban Washington, to George Bush's "speed golf" in Kennebunkport, Maine, during the Persian Gulf War, golf has always been associated with the top suite (see "Tales from the High and Mighty").

Middle managers also get sucked in. The game soared in popularity during the 1960s, when the heroics of Arnold Palmer, the roguish innovator, and Jack Nicklaus, buttoned down and focused, made them celebrities with the corporate elite. Many adopted their management styles, both on and off the course. Palmer and Nicklaus, born of modest means, rubbed shoulders with the captains of industry at the most exclusive clubs around the world. Companies eagerly signed them up to endorse their products, and with astute business advice and blue-chip contacts, Palmer and Nicklaus incorporated and later became CEOs themselves.


  Then there's Tiger Woods, readily identified with some of the biggest brands in American business -- American Express, Nike, and Buick (see "Tiger: Up Close, but Not Too Personal"). Ty Tryon, a 17-year-old Florida hotshot who recently turned pro, lately signed a $1 million endorsement contract with Callaway Golf, even though he has yet to qualify for the PGA Tour. And to think Palmer once thought he was making big bucks when he scored $300 for a Monday exhibition.

I remember when my teacher-turned-realtor father joined our local country club in 1964. Oh, he loved the game, but what he also wanted was to expand his business contacts. The club was affiliated with a fraternal organization whose members were the power brokers of my hometown. My father encouraged me to play golf, suggesting there would come a day when I would find 18 holes more relaxing than two hours of five-on-five basketball. I found that hard to believe at the time, but he was right.

No other sport lends itself to building lasting bonds like golf does

Why is golf the preferred sport of American business? In a word, relationships. No other sport, participative or spectator, lends itself to developing lasting professional bonds like golf does. "How else can one get outside for four-plus hours in a relaxed, quiet, and beautiful setting and have a friend -- or future friend -- captive in a cart?" asks Jim Henry, a business-development exec with Deloitte Consulting, based outside Washington, D.C. "There is ample time to build or renew a new relationship and discuss key items that can benefit both my client and business partner."


  Former Amateur champ Giles notes that many companies enlist his clients to participate in corporate outings or sales events. A professional golfer who has an endorsement contract with a major corporation usually agrees to spend several days a year with the company's executives or its customers, perhaps playing a hole with every foursome, speaking at dinner, posing for photographs and signing autographs. The pros often develop lasting relationships with executives. Take Davis Love, who has worked with American Express for years and is now a personal friend of Vice-Chairman Jonathan Linen, Giles says. "Davis meets with their key customers prior to the British Open, and then he and Lennon play golf together with a couple of other friends."

Agent Roach, whose company, Players Group Inc., helps market more than a dozen PGA and LPGA pros, says relationships between players and companies often reflect a shared corporate culture. "[Fred] Couples has been with Cadillac since 1992," Roach says. "It has been a wonderful fit for him with a group of executives that has evolved into personal friendships. The same is true of [Jeff] Sluman, who has worked with Mercedes since 1996."

Tony Coleman, director of golf at Bishops Bay Country Club in Madison, Wis., says golf by its nature is an intense social experience. "When you ride together for 18 holes," he says, "you have a lot of time to get to know someone." A computer industry executive once confided to me that entertaining customers in posh sky booths, watching basketball and football games, is fun, but it doesn't have the staying power with clients that a round of golf packs. Adds Coleman: "I've had customers say, 'Remember that chip-in on 17 to win the match a year ago?' but I've never had a customer say 'remember the time the Washington Wizards lost by 26?'"


  That is a key differentiator between golf and other sports. "Four to five hours on the golf course, and you get to know the character traits -- honesty, humility, ability to handle success/failure, approach to risk, desire to have fun, etc. -- of your golfing partners," said Miller Bonner, a public-relations veteran in Austin, Texas. "That translates into a successful business relationship."

"If they cheat in golf, would you want to do business with them?"

Derek Van Bronkhorst, marketing director for a Silicon Valley software company, says the time spent with a business associate on the golf course can give important clues to his or her behavior in the office. Van Bronkhorst has his own test of character on the links: "Do they cheat?" he asks. If they cheat in golf, would you want to do business with them?" After all, playing golf with a customer who always reported scores two or three strokes lower than he or she actually made probably can't be trusted in business, either.

Of course, you can overdo such litmus tests. Coleman agrees that while you can get a glimpse of a person's character on the golf course, not all captains of industry turn into paragons of virtue in knickers and Kangol hats. "I have seen people totally comfortable running large businesses who totally lose it during a round of golf," he says.


  But those negatives are far outweighed by the power of the game's positives. All you need is a foursome and an open fairway. "I made a forever friend with a commercial client back in the 1980s when I duck-hooked my drive into a condo complex and it set off a burglar alarm," Henry says. "We heard that alarm blare for an hour until the police finally quieted it. We laughed until we hurt and still do whenever we get together."

So when is it time to talk business? A word of caution: Most experts recommend withholding business discussions for at least five holes and then reading the mood of your colleague. You don't want to ask for that $1 million order after he's just shanked balls out of bounds and four-putted for a 10. "If you try to close a deal too early in the round and you fail, it could be a quiet and contentious back nine," Henry says.

One IBM executive privately suggests steering clear of another course hazard: giving golf advice. He recounts a painful experience with a customer who carried a 36 handicap and a 180-degree slice. "It was so painful to watch that finally I offered some advice. His round went from bad to worse," the IBMer says. "I should have kept my trap shut."


  If you're a novice golfer, it's a good idea to be familiar with the game's rules and etiquette. Talking or moving while another is hitting, stepping in someone's line on the putting green, failing to replace divots, and similar indiscretions will mark you an amateur in no time. It should go without saying that cursing, throwing clubs, recklessly driving golf carts, and other obnoxious behavior will limit future invitations.

Golf is a game of equilibrium, reflecting a steadiness of purpose and a joyfulness of spirit. Think of the gauche, nouveau riche jerk played by Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. Now think of the tightly wound, overaggressive, win-at-any-cost stuffed shirt played by Ted Knight in the same movie. All golfers recognize these two archetypes from the country club. You don't want to be either one. Always remember that golf is a game that can't be won -- it can only be played.

You may not want to mix golf and religion, either. "Ever played 'business golf' with your minister?" Henry asks. "It brings out the worst in them and limits your vocabulary!" Amen.

By Mark Nelson in Vienna, Va.

Nelson, an avid golfer, is a contributing writer for Washington Golf Monthly

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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