Matthew Clarke leads a double life. He's president of Bouchey & Clarke Benefits Inc. in Troy, N.Y., an advisory firm that helps companies choose employee-benefits plans. In his spare time, Clarke also is among the best amateur golfers in upstate New York.
The two identities might seem to have no connection. But Clarke knows otherwise. "In business, people tend to gravitate to golfers for some reason. Golf is a game a lot of people aspire to play well. I wouldn't call myself a celebrity by any means. But the exposure is always helpful," he says.
Each year, U.S. Golf Assn. championships attract a few dozen business execs with stellar games trying to add national tourney victories to their résumés. Business types most often make their appearances in the U.S. Mid-Amateur championship, for players 25 years and older, and the USGA Senior Amateur, for golfers who have reached their 55th birthday. (The U.S. Senior Women's Amateur is for players 50 and over.) This year the lineup in these championships included a restaurant owner from Connorsville, Ind., a steel company exec from Canada, and the president of a Dallas-based health-care company.
Clarke, 45, played in September's Mid-Amateur in Flagstaff, Ariz., his seventh USGA event. (His best showing is a round-of-16 finish at the 1999 Mid-Amateur.) Paul Simson, president of Stan Taylor Insurance, of Raleigh, N.C., carried the flag of property and casualty agents in this year's U.S. Senior Amateur. Simson, 55, nearly swept the senior amateur titles this season. After winning the British Senior Amateur in August, Simson forged into the quarterfinals before being defeated in the U.S. Senior Amateur in September.
In a sense, every fairway hit and putt dropped is a boon to the business back home, say the golfers. "As my business grows, golf has become a more important way to develop relationships," says Clarke, who serves on the committees of five charity golf tournaments in his community. Simson agrees, saying that golf and his reputation as a strong player give him special entrée as he solicits new business. "Cold calling is a very difficult process. Having an inside track is very helpful. Even if [prospective clients] are not interested in switching business, you've started a conversation that might create opportunity in the future," he says.
Still, running a business and keeping a golf game sharp is no small challenge. During summer months, Clarke, a former Division III national champion at Allegheny College, usually starts or ends his day with something golf-related. In the morning, he often stretches or runs. In the evening, he reaches for a golf club, if only to get in 15 minutes of putting practice after work.
Giving up on championship golf isn't an option he'd seriously consider, Clarke says. "I have an internal need for competition, and I've always loved to compete in golf. It's become part of my MO as a business person, too." Playing top-level amateur golf is an expensive habit. With his European travel and other tournaments, Simson estimates his golf tab this year totaled $20,000 to $25,000. But the reigning British Amateur champion jokes, "I did get my money's worth this season."
Sometimes a businessman who plays golf on the side turns the sport into a second profession. When Berwyn (Pa.) insurance exec Jay Sigel reached his 50th birthday in 1993, he turned pro and joined the Champions (then Senior) Tour, leaving behind a stellar career that included two U.S. Amateur titles and one British Amateur championship. In his first five years as a pro, Sigel won six tournaments and earned almost $5 million.
To this day, Sigel continues to sell policies and service clients. In addition to playing on the Champions Tour, he is senior vice-president of Cbiz Inc., a publicly traded insurance group. He has been introduced to countless clients on the golf course, but says he tries not to rely on his stature in the game. "I've never thought anyone should do business with me because I play golf," he says. "I don't go to my barber because he's a good fisherman--and I like to fish."
By Mark Hyman