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Doing Business on the

Golf Course

by: Tim O'Connor


It's hardly breaking news that golf is a great way to build relationships with potential business clients. Men have been doing it since the days of hickory shafts and gutta perchas.

Few other outings give you the chance to spend about five hours with someone in a beautiful setting and play a sport that lends itself to fun, interaction and camaraderie. Golf strips away our facades, allowing strangers to really get to know each other. And, if you can handle the game's challenges, injustices and occasional rewards with humor and grace, you'll impress someone in a way that a lunch, two meetings and half a dozen phone calls could never do.

While the bottom line rules, at the end of the day, most people do business with those folks they enjoy and with whom they have shared a good time. Golf provides that opportunity. Yet, despite the dramatic increase in the number of women playing the game, women have been slow to take advantage of the opportunities golf offers for business.

"It's more of a comfort and familiarity issue," says Linnea Turnquist, executive director of the Canadian Golf Foundation in Oakville, Ont. "Women new to golf are concerned they will look out of place.

"Golf isn't the easiest game to pick up. There's so many unwritten rules," says Turnquist, who ran the successful Par W program in Calgary for new women golfers.

Indeed, before you venture on to the course with clients, wait until you have a thorough knowledge of golf etiquette and basic rules, and that you can contact the ball on most every swing. Otherwise, you'll be a nervous wreck and the outing will likely turn into a black comedy beyond your worst nightmare.

This doesn't mean you have to be a great golfer. Not at all. You just have to feel comfortable on a golf course and know what other golfers expect. Business-golf is a great tool, but only in the hands of people who know and play golf.

If you don't belong to a private club, try to take your clients to a course they really want to play or one where you feel confident they will be treated with respect and courtesy. Fortunately, most metropolitan areas now have at least one high-end public facility, but by pulling strings you can sometimes wrangle yourself on to a spiffy private club. Take your client's skill level into consideration; don't take a novice to a really tough layout.

Speaking of spiffy and tough, a lot of business-golf gets done at Devil's Pulpit and sister-course Devil's Paintbrush in Caledon, Ont. Ben Kern, the director of golf, has done his share of entertaining and watched masters of the practice at work. "The first thing is to get a starting time with everyone's name in the group given well in advance so their arrival at the club is expected," Kern says.

Kern's mantra for game-day is avoid hassles in advance. Be at the course at least 90 minutes before your tee time so you can greet your clients and guests when they arrive. If the course provides bag tags, ensure they are produced and all names are spelled correctly. If it's not your own club, being there early gives you time to scout the place, so you know where the locker room is, where to pick up carts and how to pay for green fees, food and drinks. (And, yes, you pay for everything.) Being prepared and familiar with the intricacies of the facility also makes a good impression on the client.

Now a word on supplies. Do bring plenty of golf balls so you don't have to routinely look for lost balls. Do not bring a cellular phone. Your guest may be offended, especially if he or she is a golf purist.

Just because you still have trouble getting the ball airborne on occasion, don't fret. Announce on the first tee in a light way that you're not going to keep score and you'll pick up when you mess up. This goes a long way to loosening up everyone. And that's the key right there: the objective of the exercise is to have a relaxing, fun time. "Use it as a vehicle to get to know someone, rather than get involved in the game," Turnquist says.

Nothing ruins a golf day more than plodding along at a funeral pace, so be ready to hit when it's your turn. This doesn't mean you have to rush or run--just that you keep pace with your partners. That's why it's important to pick up if you've foozled a bunch of shots. (When you get near the green, you can drop a ball, chip on and putt so the group shares in the rituals of the short game.)

Many women are surprised and relieved to learn that most men are not great golfers. After all, you can be a golfer, and not be a good golfer. But at whatever level you play, never complain or moan about your game. Take your lumps with dignity and humor.

And here's good news to women worried about feeling intimidated: most golfers would rather play with someone who hits the occasional warm-burner and stays in good spirits than with a skilled player who gripes all day. Bear in mind that golf is a game of honor. If you are keeping score, and you took an 8 on a hole, don't say you had a 6. The majority of golfers believe that someone who cheats on the golf course cannot be trusted off it.

Avoid talking business on the course. It can turn some people off, make things tense and ruin the round. This is the time to get to know someone, have fun and build a relationship. However, if the client initiates a discussion of business, then follow his or her lead. Let the client guide you the whole day through.

A good rule of thumb is that after you've relaxed at the 19th hole for a spell, tell the client you'd like to discuss some business and that you'd like to set up an appointment in the coming weeks to explore it further. If the client wants to talk right there, fine. Go with the flow.

And, more times than not, you'll find that those five hours spent together around golf without discussing business will generate lots of it.

~ Tim O’Connor is a Toronto-area freelance writer ~ 

Source: Canadian Women Golfer, Spring 1999.


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