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The subtle art of business golf

This article appeared in the Post over the weekend.

Business and bogies: The civilized game is also full of etiquette hazards

By Robert Thompson

Michael Phelps learned the power of golf the hard way. Some years ago, the one-time chief executive of Westcoast Energy, Inc., a Vancouver oil company, was invited while in Hong Kong to spend four hours with Li Ka-shing, one of the world’s richest men. Mr. Phelps said he’d be delighted — Mr. Ka-shing was a man known to make huge investments and quick decisions. But there was a catch. Mr. Ka-shing’s assistant told Mr. Phelps to bring his clubs to the Hong Kong Golf Club at 7 a.m.

The problem? Mr. Phelps didn’t play golf. After he made Mr. Ka-shing’s assistant aware of the difficulty, the meeting was cut to minutes from hours.

“I realized I had a problem I had to fix,” Mr. Phelps says.

Mr. Phelps, one of Canada’s top executives in the oil sector, took up the game, invested in some lessons and joined Vancouver’s exclusive Capilano Golf and Country Club. For the rest of his career he used golf to his business benefit.

Those who don’t play golf will never know how many business opportunities they are missing out on. Yet, like the numerous rules that govern the ancient game, there are many factors to consider when you take business on to the golf course. We’ve narrowed them down to five:

1. LEARN THE GAME

You don’t have to perform like Tiger Woods, but top golf instructor Chima McLean of the Kings Golf Academy in Toronto, says you do need some sense of how to play.

“There is a fine line between some of the golf schools that focus a lot of energy on etiquette and those that focus just on playing skills,” Mr. McLean says. “You have to have both, because if you know all the etiquette but shoot 140, you’re not going to have much fun.”

2. USE THE GAME TO UNDERSTAND YOUR BUSINESS PARTNERS

John Usborne, president of BNP Securities Canada Inc., says he doesn’t use a golf outing to close deals. Instead, he uses the four hours on the links to size up his business associates.

“In four hours you really get a sense of a person. If you take them to dinner, they never take their game-face off,” Mr. Usborne explains. “But if you take them out on a golf course, you see what they are really made of.”

3. KNOW WHEN TO DO BUSINESS

“Business golf has changed,” says Chris Neale, the director of golf at Copper Creek Golf Club north of Toronto. “Now, a person wants a client to come out and play, but also to stay and have dinner afterward, which is often when the topic of business comes up. And we’re not talking about burgers and fries here. We’re talking about a bottle of wine and a nice meal.”

Mr. Neale notes that more often, clients are eschewing the private clubs that have housed Canada’s business elite and are turning to high-end public courses to entertain their business associates.

4. ACT APPROPRIATELY

Peter Schwartz, the former chief executive of Waterloo, Ont.-based technology firm Descartes Systems Group, and founder of the Oviinbyrd, a prestigious golf club in Muskoka, says while few business deals will be won on the course, plenty can be lost if you let frustration get the better of you.

“If you have a sales guy who throws a club, maybe he’s just being aggressive and showing some emotion. That could be exactly what you want,” he says. “But if your general counsel is tossing his bag into the trees, then you might have some problems.”

5. ENJOY YOURSELF

While much can be made of the etiquette of golf, executives should not get too wrapped up in formalizing how a round should proceed. Everyone needs to remember that in the end, golf is still a game, regardless of whether it is part of one’s business life. “As far as formalizing a round of business golf — that’s nonsense,” says John Haime, president of Learning Links, an Ottawa-based company that helps corporations get the most out of their golf events. “Companies that tell people how to act when out with business associates — that’s taking it too far.”

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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