Tales from the High and Mighty

Scott McNealy, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Tiger's dad, Earl Woods, share their stories about the game they all play so passionately

William Wordsworth once quipped, "Golf is a day spent in a round of strenuous idleness." Strenuous, well, sometimes. But idle enough that golfers love to talk about strolling the links and regale a listener with a good golf story. What does it take to play the game? We culled a few war stories from the archives of Golf Digest to explore why golf holds such a fascination for senior executives and what it takes to be a great golfer. Here's what they had to say:

In a 1999 interview, Golf Digest spoke with Sun Microsystems CEO and Chairman Scott McNealy, 44, a scratch golfer:

Q: What do you think about mixing business and golf?


Golf and business don't mix. The goals are completely opposite: In business, you're after big numbers. In golf, less is more. It's one of the few places where that old adage actually holds true. The only real similarity is that both require your complete attention. So it's a bad idea to try to do both at once. Either your game or your business is bound to suffer -- and I'm not sure which is worse.

I like to win, so I can't go out and throw a match trying to get on someone's good side. It's just not in me to do that. Wouldn't it be great, though, if every time you lost a round of golf, you closed a multimillion-dollar deal? Dream on.

Golf is a good way to get to know someone, though. It's how I know Jack Welch [former chairman of General Electric], who once beat Greg Norman down in Florida. He'll show you the scorecard if you ask. He'll show it to you even if you don't ask. He keeps it with him at all times. But, hey, Jack's a good golfer -- he was even lucky enough to beat me the last time we played. So, the way I look at it, Greg Norman and I now have something in common.

From Golf Digest's November, 2000, interview with Bill Clinton:

Q: Who would be your dream foursome of Presidents to spend a day on the golf course with?


I think if I were going to pick three people I could spend the day talking to, it would be Lincoln and the two Roosevelts. But, if I were going to play golf with them, I would have the young FDR, who was a great golfer. He might have had the best golf swing of any President [before polio confined him to a wheelchair]. Kennedy had the lowest handicap, but during the time he was President he could play only nine holes at a time. He was a 10.

And I would've liked to have played golf with Woodrow Wilson. He liked to play every day. I think we have an image of him that's more dour than he was, so I would have liked to have seen him on the golf course.

Q: Why have so many Presidents enjoyed golf?


I think first of all because it's a friendly game. Secondly, because they're competitive, and you're always playing against yourself -- no matter whether you're playing with someone better than you are or worse. And I like it for the same reason a lot of other busy people don't -- I like it because it takes so much time.

A lot of days like today, I'll come out here and I may go five holes before I get a good shot. But in the end, you can't do well if you're thinking about anything else. You can't play this game and think about anything else. And also, it's a place where -- even though you've got these Secret Service people all around us -- this is the nearest I ever am to being like a normal person. I'm alone playing with friends. It reminds me of everything I loved about my childhood and nature.

Q: Who was the best teacher you've ever had?


Probably Greg Norman, because the day I played with him [at Royal Melbourne, in 1996], I got out of the car just like I did today and literally walked up to the tee and duck-hooked the ball out-of-bounds. Then the second ball I hit real good, and he said, "Now you've got two choices here. If you want to play and show me that you're a pretty good golfer, I'm going to leave you alone. If you want an 18-hole clinic, I'll give it to you, but you'll shoot a higher score."

I said, "I want the 18-hole clinic." I learned a lot. In 1993, I played two days in a row with Jack Nicklaus. I learned quite a lot just listening to him. I played with Palmer one day when I was playing terrible, but I putted well. But do you know who I've played with several times and really enjoyed? Amy Alcott. Lovely woman, and I really enjoyed playing with her -- a great golfer.

Q: You've been criticized for taking too many mulligans. When you're playing with friends, what's your mulligan philosophy?


My mulligans are way overrated. I normally don't [take them]. I let everyone have one off the first tee, and then normally what I do when I'm playing with people is, I just play around, and if somebody makes a terrible shot I say, "Well, take one," and then I give everybody else one. Otherwise there are never more than one a side.

I think some of this got started because I was playing golf with an old friend from Little Rock who wasn't a particularly good golfer, but he was the most fun ever. His theory was that on each side everybody should have a mulligan off the tee, a mulligan off the fairway, and a mulligan off the green. And I would play whatever way he wanted to, but normally I don't take them. You know what -- it screws your game up. You'd be amazed at how many times you don't get a bit of good out of it.

Q: What do you learn about people from playing golf with them?


Golf is like life in a lot of ways: The most important competition is the one against yourself. All the biggest wounds are self-inflicted. And you get a lot of breaks you don't deserve -- both ways. So it's important not to get too upset when you're having a bad day.

Last year, Golf Digest caught up with Donald Trump as he was building an 18-hole golf course at Trump Intl. in Palm Beach County, Fla. Trump claims a handicap of 5 or 6.

Q: Do you play for money?


Preferably. But just for the competition. The most ever, maybe $10,000. But that's ridiculous. Most of the time it's a $50 nassau.

Q: You're all about the art of the deal. Do you do business on the course?


I'm not a cell-phone guy, but, yes, I do business.

Q: What's more exciting, building a 90-story building or a golf course?


Let me answer that this way. There are people joining Trump Intl. who wouldn't normally join with me in another venture, if you know what I mean. My rivals elsewhere tell me it's the best course in Florida.

Q: Do you watch golf?


All the time. I'll leave my office in New York on a Thursday to go home and watch a major on cable TV. I went to Augusta National last year for the first time. Fantastic.

Q: Would you trade all you've got and all you've done to be Jack Nicklaus?


He's the best ever, but no. I like my life as it is, and part of it is golf.

Q: How do golf and business differ?


I know my limitations in golf. Payne [Stewart] used to be able to hit a one-iron so high that it would land so soft, like a wedge. Me, I don't even carry a one-iron. In my work life, hopefully I can hit a high one-iron.

Finally, in the November, 2001 issue, Golf Digest asked Earl Woods, the father of Tiger Woods, about how he raised one of the greatest players of all time:

Q: Your approach with Tiger never led to an estrangement. How did you avoid that?


I never treated Tiger like a kid. I treated Tiger as an equal. We transcended the parent-child relationship and became best friends a long time ago.

Q: Did he have a standard teenage-rebellious phase?


No, he did not. He went through the same period his father did -- he thought he knew it all, just like I thought I did. That's part of growing up. I was one of those typical 21-year-olds who thought he knew everything. I made every decision in my life from age 13 [after the death of his mother; his father died when Earl was 11].

Q: Before that phase, when Tiger was young, did you ever spank him?


Never. I never even admonished him. He totally understood my tone. You know how you can stop a dog on a dead run? It's all in the voice. And this was without fear -- he didn't fear me. He just knew when he was supposed to stop.

Q: What was your approach to advising Tiger about the dangers that every kid faces, whether it's drugs, alcohol, sex, or any other challenges?


I had a very, very, very simple philosophy about drugs. I said, "Tiger, there are only two people in the world you can trust about drugs, and that's me and your mother. Neither one of us has ever used drugs, neither one of us will ever use drugs, and neither one of us will ever introduce you to drugs. You can come to us openly at any time to discuss drugs. You can't trust anyone else in society." And it worked.

Q: Tiger's former teammate at Stanford, Casey Martin, said that the one thing that kept Tiger from being truly great was profanity. [At the Western Open] he broke his wedge and cursed a couple of times. Do you wish he would tone it down a bit?


Tiger's not perfect. I'm not perfect. You can't have it both ways with Tiger. You can't have charismatic abilities to execute the marvelous shots and then chastise him when that same passion causes him to overload when he hits a bad shot.

Specifically about swearing, it's a.... I won't say a cultural thing. It's a family thing. My father could swear for 30 minutes and never repeat himself. He was that good. And I inherited it. It took some time before I could bring it under control.

Q: So of the three of you, who has the hottest temper -- you, Tida [Tiger's mother], or Tiger?


Tiger, by far. Because Tiger is the most competitive of the three of us. He'll compete in drinking a glass of water.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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