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The Real Reasons Business Leaders Love Golf

Photography: Fevi Yu

There was a time when a good golf game was a necessity for any budding business executive. A salesman who couldn’t close a deal after spending half a day in an electric buggy with a prospect was barely worth his salt. And the introductions those golf games generated couldn’t have been picked up any other way. These days, basic networking can be done online from the comfort of an office chair, and the endless rounds of conferences can go a long way towards making up for eighteen rounds with a small ball. But even if golf isn’t always the game of choice for today’s younger and geekier set, who are more likely to be playing Angry Birds or forming a guild in an MMORPG, it should be. There are good reasons that executives like golf and the sport can still teach rising entrepreneurs, even technical types, a thing or two about business success.

Technology Changes Everything

The basics of golf have remained the same. Players still whack a ball with a stick until it lands in a hole. But technology has now changed the way the game works. The dimpled ball has been around since the nineteenth century but a number of professional players, including Sergio Garcia, Darren Clarke and Sean O’Hair, are now using Low Drag Performance (LDP) balls. The technology was introduced three years ago by TaylorMade and is intended to keep the ball in the air longer by maintaining lift and reducing drag. On iron and woods, LDP is said to increase the sweet spots, while the multilayering in modern balls delivers different reactions depending on the speed with which the ball is struck.

And that’s just the ball. Changes in driver design have produced some strange-looking objects while professionals are now able to call up a host of stats for each hole they play. The result is that people who might have struggled to get halfway up the fairway can now smack the ball further and more accurately than ever before — and companies that might have been content to stick a few dents in a ball need to rely on detailed research if they’re to keep their place in the market.

For smaller businesses, the lessons from both sides should be clear: when small advances in technology can produce significant improvements in efficiency, they need to be familiar with the newest tools (even if they decide they don’t need them) — and even businesses in fields as leisured as golf still need to employ engineers and look for ways to add improvement.

Failure Brings Success

In Mentored by the King: Arnold Palmer’s Success Lessons for Business, Golf and Life, Brad Brewer, co-founder with Palmer of the Arnold Palmer Golf Academies, extracted 35 life lessons from the time he spent with the first golfer to earn a million dollars on the PGA tour. Some of those lessons are fairly bland. “Remember your Roots” we’re told in the first lesson. “Always Play for the Love of the Game,” we’re reminded in lesson eight. But perhaps the most surprising lesson to learn from one of the most successful players to swing a stick at a ball is the value of failure.

 “A lot of people think that the tournaments I lost as a result of aggressive play were a real downer for me. They weren’t. The experience was all just a continuation of the things I felt I had to do personally,” Palmer is quoted as saying in the book. “I think I was learning by what I was doing, turning a negative into a positive. And in doing so, it often inspired me to work harder so that the next time, I was confident and ready to go for it and win.”

It’s an approach that goes without saying in golf. No one expects to win every game or shoot a perfect hole every time. They start each match knowing that not only is there a good chance that they’ll fail — and ready to accept that failure — but understanding that even if they do fail, they’ll be back to try again. They’ll also expect that when they do come back, they’ll be a little  better than they were the last time they played.

That’s easier to do on the golf course, where the price of failure is low (at least for amateurs), than in the business world where failure isn’t shaken off with a handshake but takes with it years of work and giant investment sums. But for young entrepreneurs, the type most likely to expect that their start-up will be bringing them fame and fortune within a couple of years, it’s worth remembering that even the best fail sometimes — and that failure can deliver the kinds of lessons that lead to the next success.

Practice… All the Time

But that’s only going to work if you take the time to learn and absorb those lessons. It might seem strange that someone who plays golf for a living would need a coach or have much of a reason to practice beyond keeping their swinging muscles loose. But in a telling 2009 interview with PGATour.com, Tiger Woods, explained how his leg injury had affected his practice routine.

“We usually practice after the round, warm up, play, then practice,” he said. “And I haven’t been able to do that. One, my leg wasn’t very good for a long period of time. And then when I was coming back this year I didn’t do it just because you just want to get off of it, ice it, elevate it, make sure everything is okay for the next day.”

At the end of each round then, when most golfers would be expected to head for the bar and talk about the one they missed, Tiger Woods would head back out and shoot some more, correcting the mistakes he’d made that day.

In business terms, that’s the equivalent of ending a day of important business meetings with a role-playing workshop instead of a long drink. Few entrepreneurs are willing to go that far but the ones looking for success do tend to see the end of the workday as the moment they start preparing for the next day.

Golf then might be about hitting a small ball into a small hole, but executives like it for more than the occasional feeling of success or the chance to meet new partners. The sport delivers valuable lessons about life and business — and those lessons are valuable for today’s entrepreneurs too.


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