Mark Twain called golf a “good walk spoiled,” but in business, nothing is spoiled during a day on the links.
Golf – the pastoral, outdoor and slow game that it is – lends itself to conversation and relationship-building. After spending hours on a golf course, it is inevitable that a pair or foursome of associates will know much more about each other than they did before they started. “Four or five hours on a golf course is akin to rushing a fraternity,” jokes John Breaker, president of BirdieBall Inc. in Wheat Ridge, Colo.
The golfing fraternity has an estimated 28.7 million members in the United States, according to the National Golf Foundation, and that makes the activity an impossible-to-ignore facet of American culture – let alone business culture.
“Golf is a great way to connect with clients as an alternative to eating and drinking,” offers Lindsay Hoylman, marketing specialist for New Kensington, Pa.-based Leed’s. “Because golf enables people to move around and get fresh air, business interactions can be much more productive on a course than in a stuffy office.”
Dennis Rhodes with St. Louis-based Pro Am Golf agrees. “Golf allows for a complete departure from the daily grind of the office,” he reports. “Many associates respond better in a relaxed environment.”
The game, often laden with frustration, reveals a tremendous amount about someone’s character, as well. Golf courses can be rampant with cheating and swearing, and a round can uncover much about personality. Is he a risk-taker who shoots for the green over the perils of a sprawling pond? Does she play it safe and smart by hitting irons off the tee?
How someone plays the game might display much about how they act in the business world. “Clients will know if they want to do business with you based on who you are on the golf course,” Breaker acknowledges.
Tim Louis, tournament chairman for the 2008 FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., adds, “The game mimics life, especially life in the corporate world. The mission fits with what most companies strive for: persistence, perseverance and the pursuit of perfection.”
Though golf outings and business deals have an undeniable symbiotic relationship, not every round ends with a contract or job offer, he reminds. Co-workers and clients may become friends and play together for fun. But in general, every interaction among associates develops professional relationships and personal images, which are then often blurred. When people connect on the course, business arrangements often follow.
“After golfing, you can tell if you and an associate are compatible for non-golf activities,” Breaker says. “Furthermore, everyone struggles with this game, which allows us to show our vulnerabilities and share compassion.
“Let’s face it: Golf is mostly failures with a few successes sprinkled in. How someone takes failure gives some insight into your future with them.”
The public’s interest in golf depends on whom you ask. Despite a slumping national economy, golf has at least maintained its recent popularity, though the sport is not played as much as it was in the early 2000s, Breaker explains. However, the National Golf Foundation reports Americans played 5 percent more rounds of golf in 2007 than in 2006. Avid golfers and business golfers may actually benefit from this trend, Breaker says, because there’s more access to good golf.
No one knows when the first business deal was struck on a golf-course. Perhaps the Scots, the modern game’s inventors, were delineating land fiefdoms in the 16th century. But in the United States, the business world took note of golf in the mid-20th century, when the game gained popularity as a major professional sport. It was then that it became more than just predominantly upper-class recreation.
A game in which individual performance matters most, golf gained momentum with the individuals who played it best, such as Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan. In the United States, Jones was one of the earliest stars, winning seven major championships. His followers knew him for his exemplary sportsmanship and uncompromised honesty. He was a soft-spoken gentleman who played the game because he loved it, not for money or fame.
Hagan, in stark contrast, used his freewheeling domination of several courses to bring the professional game to the forefront pre-World War I. His colorful quotes and party-loving persona brought charisma to the sport, and he often took risky but entertaining shots.
During the Great Depression, golf and other leisure activities suffered, and only the rich were able to afford them. The sport continued, but only among those with money left over after the grocery bill. That period of exclusion fostered the game’s image as a sport for the affluent.
Golf was a “club” sport, and in many cases, still is, hence most courses claiming the word “club” in their titles. The term connotes a special social environment and perhaps a hint of exclusivity. Members of clubs must pay for their memberships, indicating disposable income. With a club fully in place, golf is the conduit to many other social gatherings and functions where networking abounds.
For the middle class, golf rebounded in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks in large part to Arnold Palmer, a charismatic Pennsylvania native with a reputation for chain smoking and blunt speech. He became golf’s first prominent professional in the television age. The average American related with Palmer, who, as the son of a golf course greenskeeper, did not grow up wealthy. His friendly demeanor brought golf to the mainstream, and before long, it surged in popularity. “I was lucky enough to meet him and play with him a little bit when I was 19,” says Breaker, who had a friend who worked at one of the courses Palmer owned and designed. “It was awesome!”
Then came Jack Nicklaus, a sharp-shooting golf prodigy from Ohio, who surpassed Palmer in championship tournaments. The two formed a rivalry that inspired many to take up the game. Even the middle- and working-classes discussed the “Arnold vs. Jack” debate, and a phenomenon was born.
As professional golf appeared more on television in the 1950s and 1960s, businesses began to closely affiliate with the PGA and sponsor tournaments, supplying the winnings to a player while partnering with a host course.
The practice spread to lesser professional tournaments and throughout the world. Before long, large companies such as General Motors, Rolex, Chase, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and American Express were attaching their names to tournaments everywhere, inspiring employees – particularly executives – to learn the game.
The corporate momentum didn’t slow down. An influx of large investment companies such as Accenture and Morgan Stanley joined in, and smaller businesses started buying smaller sponsorships. Louis reports that the FBR Open this winter had more than 200 sponsors for its weeklong tournament. “Without corporate sponsorship, people wouldn’t see golf on TV and be encouraged to take up the game,” he says, calling the link between golf and business a “tremendous connection.”
Eventually, people who learned golf as adults passed it on to their children. Years after Nicklaus and Palmer, a new generation of golfers began taking lessons as kids. When they matured into their working years, they brought the sport into their business relations. Soon, the number of golfing families exploded, influenced in part by Tiger Woods, who was a prodigy at the age of 3 and turned professional in 1996. His dominant play, multicultural background and commercial presence brought golf to even more people.
Thanks to big stars and big companies, the business-golf connection is not going away. “The regular guy plays golf and the regular girl plays golf,” Louis says. “You can stand on a tee and hit a drive and compare it to how Tiger Woods would hit it. It’s a lot harder to compare yourself with how an NFL quarterback throws a pass.
“Again, it’s that pursuit of perfection and greatness that keeps bringing people back.”
This article was written by John Carlisle for Corporate Logo Magazine. Reprinted with permission.