How to master business golf
A growing number of companies are sending their executives
Tuesday, January 11, 2000
to the pros to learn the art of selling themselves on the fairway.
JONATHAN B. WEINBACH
The Wall Street Journal
Over coffee and muffins in a hotel ballroom one recent morning, consultant Bill Storer lectured about 70 Pennsylvania bankers on how to improve their performance. The presentation included grid charts, Venn diagrams and even a few well-placed references to Jungian psychology. In short, a typical business lecture.
Except for one thing: He was talking about golf.
As golf continues its transformation from province of the wealthy to mass pastime, a growing number of major U.S. companies -- including Marriott Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. -- are sending young executives to "business golf" experts to learn the art of selling themselves on the fairway. The rationale: Rounds of golf are now the "martini lunches" of a generation ago, so companies need salespeople with social graces and tactical savvy on the links.
The courses, which cost up to $5,000 (U.S.) a session and usually combine lectures with time on the greens, feature discussions of such topics as "When do you talk business on the course?" and quizzes on golf rules. Real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. held a series of sessions this summer for about 75 employees in its corporate accounting division during a company outing. IBM put nearly 50 members of its Austin, Tex., software sales staff through a 3½-hour golf seminar, followed by practice time on the links, at a company meeting last year.
"I want them trying to close $100-million deals," says Ron Stone, the IBM senior marketing manager who organized the seminar, "and a lot of those 'deals' are going to get done on a golf course."
A recent trip to the links with two businessmen and their business golf instructor, Will Rhame, shows how these sessions attempt to translate greens time into greenbacks. For the first two hours, the threesome sat in the dining room of the Tampa Palms country club in Tampa, Fla., reading and discussing Mr. Rhame's 22-page instruction manual. Among the suggestions: Bet $5 or a lunch tab on a few holes during the round. "It is a natural way to bond," Mr. Rhame says. "Soon you're calling your guest 'partner.' "
Throughout the discussion, Mr. Rhame peppers his students with advice: "Playing 'TV golf' will kill" the deal making atmosphere, he says, alluding to golfers who elaborately measure their shots as though they were Tiger Woods at the Masters. "It's okay to laugh off the bad shots and make fun of your game," he adds.
After lunch and a brief stop at the driving range, Mr. Rhame leads the group onto the course. He explains that he plans to commit some business golf gaffes during the afternoon and asks his students to try to spot them. On the first hole, as one player lines up a putt, Mr. Rhame grabs the flag at an awkward angle, creating a shadow over the cup of the hole. The other student, apparel salesman Doug Risher, spots the error immediately: "You held the flag wrong. There was a shadow in his line."
These aren't simply breaches of golfing etiquette, Mr. Rhame says -- they are potential business obstacles: "Golf has a lot of little no-nos that people might use to judge your professional character."
Some business golfers don't consider it a topic that calls for formal pedagogy. Kerry Langstaff, director of marketing for 3Com Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., says she doesn't need the sales tips and client relations advice. "I can handle the schmoozing part," Ms. Langstaff says. "My goal is just to play along with the guys and not have them wait for me."
Others swear by the concept. "There are steps you can take to learn how to make a deal on the course," Mr. Stone says, "and we don't have that kind of expertise at IBM." Adds Matt Proseda, a 38-year-old banker in Wellsboro, Pa., who heard Mr. Storer's presentation: "Nobody wants to look stupid with clients."
For novices, the idea is often simply to help them work up the courage to get out on the course with a client. Many women, for example, are "incredibly scared about making etiquette mistakes or looking bad," Suzanne Woo says. A former real estate attorney, she runs a business golf consulting outfit in Berkeley, Calif., that caters to female professionals. She generally charges $3,500 for a three-hour session.
At a seminar in April for female executives from Merrill Lynch, Ms. Woo walked them through everything from where to stand when others are teeing off to whether it's acceptable to bring pagers and cellular telephones to the course (it isn't).
"Even for women who had grown up in the country club set, it was a good refresher," says Karen Hall, a Merrill Lynch manager who attended the session. "There's not a lot of training out there for how to network on a golf course."
So when to get down to business? Some instructors actually don't recommend discussing that subject on the course, especially on the first outing. "Take it slow, and set the stage for another meeting," Mr. Rhame writes in the workbook.
His suggestion: "Let the guest bring it up." And be sure to send a thank you letter. "It adds another touch of class," he says.
Executive Suite deals with the careers and challenges of senior managers. It appears each Tuesday.
REAL PROS DON'T THROW CLUBS
From the experts, 10 tips for playing the perfect round of business golf.
Bet on the round. Soon you'll be calling your guest "partner."
No excess speeding in the cart.
Cellphones are a no-no on the course.
Don't give unsolicited tips and golf lessons.
Never throw clubs -- it's a reflection on your professionalism.
Letting a customer win does not build trust.
Never change your shoes in the parking lot.
Tip the locker room attendants every time.
Shorts should be about mid-thigh length. Always wear a collared shirt.
Have cash prepared. Whatever you do, don't give IOUs. WSJ