In the battle against COVID-19, maintaining social distance has been identified as the best way to stop the spread of the virus. That, however, has had dire implications in the business world: in-person meetings were put on hold and most traditional business development activities were deemed unsafe and irresponsible.
Thankfully one of the world’s oldest sports — golf — emerged as a viable alternative.
Courses reopened in early May, some six weeks after the U.S. went on lockdown, and now the sport is booming. Besides representing a small sign that things are returning to normal (or as close as is possible in these turbulent times), it has also presented a lifeline to the business development community.
The Small Business Investor Alliance (SBIA) had cancelled every conference, every networking opportunity. But golf became a welcome work-around for those, like myself, who enjoy hitting the links — and who are eager to do business face to face after such a long exile.
I was fortunate to play golf at some of my favorite courses including National Golf Links of America (NGLA) in Southampton, NY, one of the world’s great courses. Other times I found myself teeing it up somewhere I’d never played before which included the mighty Streamsong golf resort and the historic Pinehurst which lived up to all expectations. I have always found my time on the golf course to be productive. The access to potential clients and business partners cannot be equaled anywhere else, and the setting is far more relaxed than that of a conference room.
It is, in other words, the ultimate win-win: I get to engage in a favorite activity, while at the same time getting important business accomplished. You really can’t beat it. While the business community has long embraced this point, our present reality has strongly reinforced the notion.
Back in 1993, a survey concluded that fully 25 percent of executives golf. Far more recently, Golf Operator magazine noted that about 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are regulars on the links, and that in general, executives who golf make 17 percent more than those who do not.
George Souri, owner of UltraPawn, told Forbes that golf outings are a way to develop relationships, not seal a deal — i.e., they are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. As he put it, “People make investments in people. A round of golf is a great time to demonstrate you are a smart, competent, and likable person. If you are a thoughtful golfer who engages in good conversation on the course, you will increase your chances for closing a deal.”
I couldn’t agree more. Because you are with a potential client or business partner for four hours or so (give or take food and/or drinks), you get to know one another better than you ever could in a boardroom or over the phone.
And consider the things you could learn about these potential partners, just from the way they play. Do they try to hit it down the middle of the fairway, or do they cut the corner of a dogleg and go for the pin? Do they get frustrated if things aren’t going well, or do they maintain their composure? Do they play fair and square, or do they cut corners?
Each of those actions is a window into one’s character, and can play a role in whether you want to do business or not.
Golf’s worthiness as a business vehicle was made clear to me during a recent round at a course near Philadelphia. I happened to be in a foursome that included the managing partner of another firm, and we hit it off. It was a really enjoyable day, and we discussed a deal I was working on. In the aftermath we exchanged emails, and he’s now helping me structure that deal.
I have seen that happen again and again. Nearly every golfer has.
Of course, there’s a level of finesse to discussing business on the links. It is generally agreed that it is best to ease into shop-talk — to make key points subtly and over time, rather than forcing the issue. Bill Storer, president of Business Golf Strategies in Basking Ridge, N.J., went so far as to tell Golf.com that he believes it is best not to discuss business before the fifth hole, nor after the 15th.
You are, after all, playing the long game here, in every sense. As with golf itself, it is best to let things unfold slowly and naturally, to allow everything to happen in its time. This year, more than any other, has offered ample evidence of what a great approach that can be.