Gurus: CEOs & Their Coaches

Imagine being able to boast at a cocktail party that you share a swing coach with Tiger Woods

Back in the mid-1980s, when Benjamin M. Rosen decided to take up golf at age 55, the legendary venture capitalist went through more than a dozen teaching pros at various clubs--with little to show for it. Then about a decade ago, Rosen, chairman emeritus of Compaq Computer Corp. (CPQ ), traded up to Dave Pelz, a short-game specialist whose students have included PGA Tour pros David Duval and Vijay Singh.

The pro noted that Rosen was decelerating his swing to reduce the pain in his bum knees--causing his shots to land short and wide. Pelz says he taught Rosen to shorten his backswing while extending his follow-through. That not only eased the pressure on Rosen's knees, but it helped him hit longer, straighter shots. Thanks in part to Pelz, Rosen cut his handicap from 36 to 18--not bad for a 69-year-old who has weathered a hip replacement, a pair of new knees, and two back operations.

While legions of duffers turn to the local course pro to work out the kinks in their games, many top execs seek out elite instructors such as Pelz, Butch Harmon, Jim McLean, and David Leadbetter. Part of the allure may be boasting rights at parties that you share a swing coach with, ahem, Tiger Woods. But it may simply reflect the desire of many execs to get the best advice there is. Just as they will travel to the Mayo Clinic for medical treatment, they won't settle for second best when it comes to improving their golf game.

Sharing Harmon with Woods costs big. Top instructors charge upwards of $800 an hour--roughly the same rate that top lawyers command. For a private lesson at one of his five golf schools, McLean charges $2,500 for three hours of one-on-one instruction, lunch, plus a two-hour follow-up with an assistant. When a pro makes the trek to a harried exec, it costs a king's ransom: Pelz charges $25,000 a day for out-of-town lessons, plus $5,000 to cover the cost of flying his new Lear 31A jet.

Gurus: CEOs & Their Coaches

Some megapros say they can deliver better results than a teaching pro at a country club because they can be more candid with an executive. "At the club, the teaching pros view all of the members as their bosses. They can't be as forthright as I can," says Harmon, whom Golf Digest named the nation's top instructor in 2001 in a poll of his fellow teaching pros.

Given the resources at their disposal, elite pros are at the cutting edge of teaching techniques. Consider Pelz, once a collegiate golfer at Indiana University. After failing to make the pro tour, Pelz used his physics background to land a research post with NASA outside Washington. But Pelz never lost the golf bug. When he took a leave in the mid-1970s, he never went back--and hung out his shingle as a teaching pro. Not surprisingly, Pelz has a reputation for an almost scientific approach to the game. For instance, he tells students that to compensate for such factors as the slope of the green, they have to hit most putts with enough force to go 17 inches past the cup. Reason: By using mechanical putting machines to hit thousands of balls, Pelz determined that putts with that much force had the greatest chance of going in.

Beyond technical prowess, the superpros say it requires a strong ego to stand up to the executive set, who by and large are demanding individuals. Some pros admit that to humble a stubborn executive, they videotape his swing, then make him watch it while listening to a withering critique.

McLean notes that some clients, including brokerage exec Charles R. Schwab, can be brutally tough on themselves. "If one of his employees talked to [Schwab] the way he talks to himself, I'm sure he'd fire them," jokes McLean. Schwab laughs upon hearing this. "I have high expectations of myself," says the exec, who credits McLean for helping simplify his swing. "Golf is a perfect analogy to business. You go out and shoot a 75, and you say, `Gosh, if I'd just hit those two putts."'

Sometimes, pros say, they have to resort to unique teaching gambits. "These CEOs don't want to be told what to do," says Mike Hebron, whose students include retired American Express Co. (AXP ) Chairman James D. Robinson III. "But they're open to seeing things in new ways. I tell them, `We're doing nothing to your golf swing--we're actually firing the employees that are getting in the way of your golf swing."'

Not that execs always listen. McLean, who runs schools at Miami's Doral Golf Resort & Spa plus two resorts in Palm Springs, Calif., says jokingly that Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW ) CEO Scott G. McNealy doesn't easily take to instruction. "I give him suggestions, but he doesn't listen to them much," McLean says. However, McNealy's athletic ability allows him to boast a 1 handicap. "He has a funky swing. It's short, fast, and ugly. But do you know what? It gets the job done," says McLean.

Even top-dollar pros don't pretend to be miracle workers. Given the brief periods they have with busy execs, some pros even offer to refund their hefty fees when they don't feel they've made a difference. "Sometimes I tell them we were hitless today and give them their money back," says Hebron. Some execs, including Robinson, admit that tutoring under the game's best teachers has yielded only incremental improvements. "It isn't [Mike Hebron's] fault. I'm just too old to be consistent," muses Robinson, now 66.

Often, the biggest hurdle isn't desire, it's conditioning. Many CEOs are fifty- or sixtysomethings who don't leave themselves much time to practice or even exercise. Leadbetter, whose clients include casino magnate Steve Wynn, recalls telling one CEO: "Remember, when your waistline is 47, you're going to be putting from memory."

When a pro gets to see an executive only once in a while, the trick is to give him tips and drills that he can work on regularly. McLean says one of his most diligent students has been George Roberts, a founding partner of the buyout firm, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. McLean gives Roberts drills he can work on for 15 minutes a day. Between lessons, McLean talks to Roberts every few weeks and analyzes tapes of the financier's swing.

Roberts says he's grateful for McLean's willingness to tailor his advice. "He keeps it simple and fits what you need with what you have, as opposed to trying to force you into a system," says Roberts, whose handicap has gone from 15 to 3. As a result, he may look at the hefty fees he has racked up with McLean as one of his more profitable ventures.

By Dean Foust

With Brian Grow, Steve Hamm, and Emily Thornton

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.