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Several years ago, I happened to pair up with someone I hadn’t previously met at the Santa Fe Country Club, where I usually play. After a few holes, we discovered common professional interests: He was about to buy a local magazine and—after editing a travel magazine for several years—I was looking for a new opportunity. We had a lively discussion, with both of us thinking: ‘Mmm, kismet?’ Then a curious thing happened. He preferred to drive his cart at top speed between shots and holes, whereas I liked to walk the course and take my time lining up each shot. At the end of 18, we exchanged numbers, but we both knew we’d never collaborate.
Why? Because the way we played golf spoke volumes about the way we approached our professions.
This weekend, golf is once again on our minds as the Master’s—perhaps the premiere golf tournament in the country—enters its second round of play. The other day, in an interview with a national newspaper, 2011 US Open champ Rory McIllroy was briefly embarrassed when his phone rang, an awkward moment on a course where handheld devices are strictly forbidden. However, it’s a good reminder, for all of us weekend duffers who are taking our clubs out of the closet for the first time this year, how important etiquette and good manners are to the game.
It may be a canard that more deals are struck on the golf course than in any other venue. But if you want to be a walking cliché, I humbly offer a few pieces of advice.
1. Take Lessons
Face it: You stink. Luckily, it’s not necessarily a life sentence. Living in the Rockies, where golf is a seasonal pursuit, I need all the help I can get when the snow melts. Starting the season by hitting two thousand balls on the range will not improve a flawed swing. So take a couple of lessons, but avoid the Pro who gives you 87 things to remember on your backswing. Don’t combine golf and business until you’re playing competently. Otherwise, your clients will rightly assume you’re an idiot.
2. Follow the Rules
A couple of years ago, I read about pro golfer Camilio Villegas being accessed a penalty for removing some debris from around his ball before taking his shot. He seemed genuinely surprised at having broken the rules. What’s shocking is that he didn’t know the rules. You don’t have to be the rule-book Nazi in your foursome, but take some time to read it before the season starts. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve forgotten—or never knew.
3. Observe Dress Codes
One of the best things about business golf is getting invited to play at a client’s or colleague’s club for the first time. Don’t show up in cargo shorts and your vintage Beck tee shirt. Call ahead to the pro shop and ask about the dress code. Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson are good golf fashion icons: conservative but with a little individual flair. Forget the lime green or cranberry red ensembles. It works for Rickie Fowler. It doesn’t work for you.
4. Play Fair
Golf is self-policing. There are no refs, umpires, or line judges. Just you and your conscience. If your client sees you kicking your ball out of the rough for a better lie, do you think he’ll consider you a go-getter who doesn’t let anything stand in his way—or a lying, self-deceiving sleaze? Mmm. I was playing with a retired chief operating officer a few years ago and I remember him saying, ‘It’s too bad the ethics of golf don’t apply to business.’ That’s just the kind of guy who is perplexed by the public’s attitude toward Wall Street.
5. Observe the Etiquette of the Game
Golf etiquette requires a couple of volumes to detail, from determining driving order to conceding a putt. It boils down to erring on the side of good manners. You don’t throw your briefcase across the boardroom when a deal goes sour (if you still have a briefcase, troglodyte), so throwing your clubs and cursing when you overshoot the green is going to tell your business golf partner that you’re a bad-tempered, tantrum-throwing moron—just the kind of business connection to avoid. Accept failures with grace and victories with humility.
6. Don’t Bet on It
My father imparted two pearls of wisdom when he introduced me to the game. First, never play against anyone, just yourself. Second, if you get frustrated, just enjoy the view. Tournaments are one thing, but putting too competitive an edge on a business golf game can get ugly. You really want to have to watch someone you’re hoping to do business with resentfully write out a check to you in the clubhouse? Conversely, are you willing to trash all sense of honor by five-putting the last hole so your client can walk away $105 richer? If your answers are yes, I suggest you take up trout fishing with dynamite.
7. Don’t Drink and Drive, Let Alone Putt
Until the final putt on the 18th, don’t even think about a cold one. My regular foursome includes a communications executive, an electrical contractor, and a chef. We don’t talk business; we talk smack. So a couple of tall boys in the cart is appropriate. But when you’re doing business on the course, the last thing you want is for things to get sloppy. The clubhouse after play is the appropriate venue—and if you’ve done your prep correctly for the last 18 holes, it’s the right place to close the deal.
8. Know When to Talk Business
One of the oldest maxims of the game is to never talk business the first time you play with a new colleague or client. Pushing your business agenda when you’re supposed to be enjoying leisure time is unseemly. When business does enter into things, observe these four nevers: First, never discuss business before the third hole; second, never after the 15th; third, never when someone is preparing to shoot; and fourth, never on the green. Personally, I like to walk a course—not just for the exercise, but for the stroll between shots that actually gives you and your partner time for a leisurely chat.
9. Play Charitable Tournaments
Yes, local tournaments for charity are possibly the best venue for networking ever devised. If run well, they’re also usually a hell of a lot of fun. Also, at the end of the weekend, you’ve helped raise money to help someone’s life other than your own.
10. Take Advantage of Reciprocals
No doubt you’ve gone to your club’s general manager or pro and asked for help with a reciprocal—the gentlemen’s agreement by which you’re allowed to play as a guest at another club. The problem with this is that if your club pro is not well respected—or your club is not at a certain tier—your request to play at Pine Valley, N.J., will probably be turned down. About eight years ago, a number of online ‘reciprocal clubs’ sprang up that offered a matchmaking service for private club members. You still might get turned down because your own club isn’t up to snuff, but the advantage is they come up with lots of clubs you’d never think of playing and they can reach out internationally to clubs at which your own would never have connections. If you travel abroad frequently, membership is a bargain, but they’d still never let you into Pine Valley.