By Mike Purkey
Doug Lebda appears in the locker room at Quail Hollow Club holding a Ziploc bag filled with eight or nine golf balls and a couple of gloves. He’s still wearing the gray slip-on canvas shoes he arrived in.
“I’m demo-setting it today,” Lebda says with a smile. “My clubs are in the trunk of my car, which had a flat at the airport, and I had it towed in.”
Most golfers, about to play a round to impress, would come unglued if they had to go out with an unfamiliar set of clubs and no golf shoes, which Lebda couldn’t wear because of a foot ailment. The CEO of LendingTree had immediate perspective: “I already have a good excuse if I don’t play well,” he says.
Anyone who has caught Lenny, the wisecracking, green LendingTree spokespuppet, on TV knows it’s a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Lenny pokes fun at consumers who don’t shop around for the best mortgage rate. LendingTree gets the last laugh: Revenue jumped 62% in the first half of 2017 versus the year earlier.
But if there’s a sport to keep a player humble, golf can make you self-conscious the fastest. One bad swing that leads to a bad shot can leave you looking for a tree to hide behind. Lebda is in the trees plenty during this round, but he isn’t trying to shrink from view. He’s happily trying to find his ball and get it back to the fairway on a gorgeous fall morning.
Lebda, 48, has a 15.3 handicap index at Quail Hollow with a golf swing of a player with half that handicap. He is tall, lean and athletic, owing to his participation in Ironman triathlons, marathons and ultramarathons. On the golf course, he has a wide stance and an equally wide arc with his driver. But with this demo driver, he is high and low, left and right, which leads to a number of bogeys and double bogeys. But never a cross word is spoken nor epithet hurled. And when we decide to walk instead of riding in a cart, he says, “Now we can call it exercise.”
Lebda does have his moments. He gets up and down from the front left bunker for a par at the par-3 13th. On the par-4 16th, the beginning of the difficult Green Mile at Quail, he blasts a drive and gets to within 20 feet with his 6-iron second shot. He two-putts for a routine par on one of the hardest holes on this year’s PGA Championship course.
“You can’t get hung up on your good ones or your bad ones,” he says.
Lebda is not a weekend golfer with a regular group. He likes to play nine holes in the evening, sometimes with his wife, Megan Greuling, and sometimes alone. It’s the alone time that he uses as an opportunity to think with no one else around. “I can solve a lot of problems on the golf course that way,” he says.
He learned to play in college at Bucknell, in his hometown of Lewisburg, Pa., graduating in 1992. He played mostly for the camaraderie with friends. He carries on that tradition by inviting 15 of his college buddies for the Bison Cup (named for the Bucknell mascot), in which the friends play a Ryder Cup-style format. They compete at Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, where Lebda is also a member.
Post-Bucknell, Lebda had a stint with PricewaterhouseCoopers as an auditor and consultant. While living in Pittsburgh, he applied for a mortgage to buy a condo. The arduous process left him bewildered and thinking there was a better way. He then entered the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in 1996 to study for his MBA. He left graduate school before finishing — he completed his degree in 2014 — to start a company with fellow Bucknell alum Jamey Bennett. The idea was to pair people seeking a mortgage with banks and financial institutions. They called it Credit Source USA. By 1998, it was rebranded as LendingTree, and Lebda moved to Charlotte.
A successful IPO launched in 2000, shortly before the dot-com bust. But Lebda managed to hold on and survive the crisis. In 2003, LendingTree was acquired by IAC, led by Barry Diller. Two years later, Lebda joined IAC as chief operating officer. When IAC spun off LendingTree to form Tree.com, Lebda returned to the company.
Over the last five years, LendingTree shares have soared from about $17 to about $230 in early October. The firm is valued at about $2.7 billion, with Lebda’s stake worth about $600 million. It’s building a new headquarters in Charlotte’s SouthPark area with plans to add 314 jobs over the next five years.
LendingTree’s rapid growth doesn’t leave as much time for business golf as Lebda would like, but he knows how to use golf as a character revealer. “It might be a cliché, but golf is a microcosm of life. You get to know people better [on the golf course] than sitting around doing other things. You can probably fake it for 13 or 14 holes of golf, but you can’t fake it for 18 holes. You might as well embrace who you are. The thing I point to in business is authenticity. You can be an authentic pastor or an authentic degenerate, but at least be authentic. There’s no reason not to be who you are, and golf will reveal that.”
In the meantime, his own game has improved over the years, enough to make the amateur cut with his professional partner at the 2009 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. In a stroke of rotten luck, the final round was washed out, robbing him of the chance to play the famous northern California course with the pros on a PGA Tour Sunday.
What golf reveals about Lebda is that he is quick to credit others for his successes and take the blame for his failures. He finishes this round of golf with a high number and marches immediately and dutifully into the golf shop at Quail Hollow to post his score on the handicap computer.
“It wasn’t pretty,” he says. “But it was real.”