A Golf League Of Their Own

Corporate golf leagues can be a great way to foster friendships and teamwork among employees. Here's how to organize yours

When he first joined MGIC as marketing manager 23 years ago, Curt Culver, Golf Digest's top-ranked golfing CEO with a 2.4 Handicap Index, spent time in league play mingling with -- and undoubtedly impressing -- his superiors with his acumen on the course. "Where else would I have had such an opportunity?" says Culver, now president and CEO of the mortgage-insurance firm.

Culver has carried on the tradition of the corporate golf league at MGIC, where employees relish the occasional matchup with the Big Boss. Although the demands of his job have limited him to substitute duty in the MGIC league, Culver's participation and support gives the league an added appeal. Employees who were paired with Culver in the past "talked about it for weeks," according to Jack Long, one of the league's former administrators. "Curt believes good golf transfers over to your work in terms of the commitment and concentration it takes."

MGIC has encouraged participation among all levels of golfers, including beginners, to escape the perception that golf is an elite activity. The company's Milwaukee office (with a workforce of 600) has a 16-team league with at least four players each. "It's just such a positive experience to be out there on a golf course with fellow employees, sharing the good shots and the bad shots and walking around together," Long says. "For those nine holes, you're on the same team. That doesn't always happen in corporate America." Culver says the MGIC league "enables our employees to meet more of their co-workers than they might otherwise do, and to learn that they're good people."

Organizers of corporate golf leagues say that inclusiveness and the emphasis on bonding, instead of the competitive aspect, is a key to success. The best leagues foster friendships, teamwork, and camaraderie, build relationships within companies, and offer an after-work social and semicompetitive outlet.

In most cases league participants play only against employees within their company, but some compete against other firms. Golf leagues are deeply embedded in hundreds of corporate cultures, from lumberyards to telecommunications companies. Sprint has golf leagues, for example, that date back 25 years.

Public golf courses, which typically have men's and women's leagues of their own, enjoy the additional revenue corporate leagues can provide during off-peak hours, usually weekdays after 4 p.m. The head professional at one of the courses that hosts Sprint, Jeff Moore of St. Andrews Golf Club in Overland Park, Kan., says corporate leagues account for more than 10 percent of the 64,000 annual rounds played.

Leagues tend to engender a healthy spirit within the corporate culture and reflect the personalities of those who participate and administer them. In most leagues, employees play nine holes after work. They also get an unofficial but widely enjoyed fringe benefit: the opportunity to exit early from the office to make it to the first tee. A longtime player at Bausch & Lomb Pharmaceuticals in Tampa described it as "our afternoon ritual, bugging out" an hour or so before Monday golf's 4:30 p.m. official tee time.

Golf Digest editors participate in an annual match-play tournament not known so much for its operational efficiency as for the ribbing given and taken when editors knock each other out.

Leagues take various forms, but most follow a similar blueprint: Team and individual net matches are played simultaneously with in-house handicaps monitored by a league administrator, sometimes known as "the commissioner." Individual and team standings are kept, and results are posted and circulated, usually through the company Internet site or e-mail system, culminating in a year-end trophy and bragging rights.

Some companies and their golf-obsessed employees take the notion to extremes with complicated formats: An employee at an engineering company complained to us that no one could comprehend his league's format except the engineer who runs it. Computer software programs are available to help set up your league and track handicaps and results. NetGolfLeague.com, for example, has had more than 950 clients sign up for its service in the past three years. Tom Schumacher, administrator of the Carter-Jones Lumber League in Akron, Ohio, says a computer program has cut his weekly time inputting scores and issuing updates by more than 50 percent.

One thriving league in Minnesota has a popular "Trash Talk" bulletin board where participants are publicly tarred and feathered, all in good fun. "If you're trashed you know you're loved," says Jerry Haas, plant controller and administrator of the company league for Hormel Foods in Austin. "If you're ignored, you may be a horse's patoot." His regular bulletins begin: "Some days you struggle to find trash and other days are simply a lay-up." We'll take his word for it.

A survey of league organizers and participants revealed several important do's and don'ts, procedures proven to work and pitfalls to avoid. In relative order of importance, they are:

1. A formal structure. Leagues require an organizational structure and organizers to keep them on track. At Kelly Services, the temporary-employee firm in Troy, Mich., official bylaws require three elected officers to oversee the 28-player league, and an annual "broadcast message" goes out each winter to encourage diverse participation. There is an open application period to make sure the league is "as democratic as possible," according to president Ed Perez. When problems arise about issues such as absenteeism, slow play, or handicaps -- three recurring problems among leagues -- Perez says he will speak to the miscreant, then send out a gentle broadcast message reminding all participants to, say, pick up the pace. A league fee of $25 to $50 generally covers the cost for prizes and administration, and green fees usually run about $20 weekly unless you take a cart. Many companies subsidize the leagues by 25 percent or more.

An enthusiastic administrator is the point person for making a company league work. But he or she can't always go it alone, especially when problems arise. To help deal with grievances, small committees ensure that no single employee is constantly pitted against others. At Sprint, league administrator Fred Bleedorn is joined by two others on the grievance committee. "You don't want to create hard feelings," he says. "This way you get different viewpoints and three people listening to and ruling on any problems that crop up."

2. Handicapping. This is a thorny issue for all competitive leagues, especially ones designed to attract beginners. Hormel, with its league based at a private country club, requires all league participants to carry a USGA handicap. MGIC allows players to participate twice without a handicap, then begins tracking and assigning handicaps internally. Kelly Services' golf league purchased a software system that provides a handicap with players' four best of their last six scores. Some league offices must deal with sandbaggers and "vanity" handicappers who don't play anywhere near their posted number. If you cannot get a USGA Handicap Index, go to golfdigest.com/handicap to register for a Golf Digest Handicap. In addition to providing a fast way to establish a handicap, the free service allows you to record data from your rounds, such as fairways hit and number of putts.

3. Timing. One of the allures of league play is the early escape from work, a semi-legit excuse to get out of the office on company time. "We've learned by now not to schedule meetings after 4 p.m. on Tuesdays," says Julie Craven, Hormel's director of corporate communications. But once on the course, the time that league play requires quickly becomes a sore point when nine-hole rounds exceed 2 1/2 hours. (One participant contacted us about his plans to discreetly drop his laggardly partner, then recanted after his mate suddenly picked up the pace.) With individual and team matches often in play at the same time, players tend to hole out everything. Try to avoid the tendency to turn casual Tuesday afternoons into U.S. Open Sundays. Leave a little time for the cocktail hour before it turns dark. Monday-morning quarterbacking is fine, but morning hangovers are not recommended.

4. Communication. Make sure employees across the company's divisions and departments know about the league's existence. Not everyone is part of the e-mail culture. Royal Precision, a shaftmaker in Torrington, Conn., with 120 employees, has a nice league going, but it involves just 12 players. "I've had people who work in the factory come up to me and say, 'I didn't know we had a league,"' says Randy Pollock, Royal Precision's vice-president of quality and engineering. "We're going to do more publicity next year to make sure everyone knows."

5. Building and sustaining interest. Because most leagues run concurrent with the golf season from May into September, it can become a lengthy commitment. That's why substitutes are needed to fill in for regulars who are out of town or otherwise unavailable. Some leagues allow nonemployees to serve as substitutes. Teams and individuals who are faring poorly tend to lose interest as the season progresses. To counteract this, Kelly Services splits its season in two with a midseason special match-play event followed by a clean slate when league play resumes. "If you're near the bottom in the points standings by mid-July there's no way to catch up," says Perez. "This way we start fresh at midseason with everyone even."

6. Avoid sexism/elitism. Leagues dominated by male players inevitably tend to be regarded as elitist or sexist. Women need to be encouraged to play so the league doesn't become a "boys night out." Leigh Lassiter-Counts, who works for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston Island, says her 21-handicap (for nine holes) invokes occasional sneers when she wins matches. "I'll get out there and hit one good shot and they say, 'Oh, you're a 21, yeah, right.' Sometimes the guys get a little irked if they get beat by a girl," she says.

Chauvinistic ribbing aside, Lassiter-Counts' experience embodies the positive values of a company golf league. When she arrived in 2003 she knew no one among the 13,000 employees. "It was me and 13,000 strangers." The league gave her something to do and a way to make friends, even among some of the chauvinists. "It was nice to have people to do things with and not always go home and have dinner by myself," she says. Through the league, part of the university's "Commit to Fit" initiative, she has rekindled her enthusiasm for the game and has had the chance to meet and interact with "people that I never would have met. It's fun to see folks in golf clothes, then in work clothes, or sometimes the other way around."

Leagues can thrive in companies of many sizes and structures. Perhaps the leader in leagues is Nationwide, the insurance company whose CEO, Jerry Jurgensen, ranked second in Golf Digest's CEO listing, 0.1 stroke behind Culver. Externally, Nationwide is the umbrella sponsor for the PGA Tour's secondary circuit; internally it has 22 golf leagues inhabited by hundreds of the 10,000 employees at its Columbus, Ohio, headquarters. The nine-hole, after-work leagues play at staggered starts depending on availability at various public courses in the area, with various formats in each league buttressed by a large roster of substitutes. The midsummer Nationwide Open has a field of 144 players. Employees pay 70 percent of the fees, with Nationwide kicking in a 30 percent subsidy. "It's an opportunity to network across the company and for us to share a little down time together," says Jackie Sells, associate program supervisor who oversees the league activity. "It also supports one of our company values, which is, we have fun."

Sounds good to us.

By Peter McCleery

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