Bidness golf

 In April 2016, Features

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My old buddy Jasper makes lots of dough playing golf. He doesn’t make it playing professionally or even wagering on friendly weekend matches. He makes it playing what he affectionately calls “bidness golf” around the Triad and Triangle. Using the game to enhance one’s stature with important clients and customers is as ancient as the game itself.

I won’t tell you Jasper’s real name, because he would be embarrassed to the tip of his fashionable FootJoys if I singled him out as a guy who claims to be a purist when it comes to keeping the traditions of the game, yet he clearly sees golf as a key asset to his bottom line. 

Back in the early 1990s, when everything from Florida time shares to Trump Steaks was up for sale and red hot, I wrote about the phenomenon of company golf, a concept born around American country clubs in the 1960s and refined over the decades that followed. Though still considered heresy in much of the game’s Scottish homeland, the idea of using social connections made through golf to feather one’s business interests became as commonplace in America as designer golf courses ringed by upscale housing.

One business expert told me that a third of the golf played in the 1990s had a direct business purpose. “Probably half the deals made in America,” he insisted at the time, “are made on the golf course these days.” Books described the natural connection between golf and the art of corporate dealmaking.

Best of all, back then, you could merrily write off almost everything — green fees, travel expenses, drinks at the 19th Hole, even your swanky hotel room — and get clean away thumbing your nose at the Internal Revenue Service.

Amid the salad days of corporate largesse, Jasper often passed out illegal Cuban cigars on the first tee to his best golf companions. He managed to write off at least two new custom-made sets of Callaway golf clubs, not to mention every blessed golf ball, during three consecutive presidential terms.

Oh, how times have changed. First came the IRS, which around the turn of the century began denying golf-related company expenses, regarding such deductions to be about as legit as a Russian dating service. A double blow came with the recession of 2007-09, which devastated the hospitality industry and sent the nation’s overbuilt golf industry into the tank. A frightening percentage of high-priced daily fee courses and resorts — and even many mainline private clubs — became insolvent, prompting forced sales and closings.

Even if you’re the purest of tradition-minded golfers like me, you can understand the irresistible attraction between business and golf. Golf in America began as an amateur game in the 19th century. It later went professional, with tournaments of the 1940s often featuring bake sales and free blood-pressure testing booths, while raising dough for worthy charities and promoting the civic virtues of host towns.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that professional golf gained its first serious toehold on the nation’s sports psyche, largely due to a charismatic Wake Forest alum named Arnold Daniel Palmer. In those days, tournaments were largely local affairs sponsored by civic organizations, car dealerships and even drugstores. In sum, golf tournaments were sporting postcards from a prosperous postwar America. Try mentioning the late, great Azalea Open to a Wilmington golfer of a certain age and just watch his  eyes glaze over with misty nostalgia for a simpler time when a game seemed, well, just a game, not a platform for peddling waste-management services.

Ditto for Pinehurst’s vaunted North and South Open and the beloved history-making opens of Greensboro, Charlotte and Durham, where the game’s greatest legends including Snead, Hogan and Nelson walked their way into the record books. Los Angeles, Phoenix, Milwaukee and other cities came of age using golf tournaments to boost civic pride and drum up local business.

In the early 20th century, an advertising impresario named Frank Presbrey created the first “corporate outing” at Pinehurst, attracting stressed-out business types from the Northeast’s congested cities to the sleepy Sandhills for “golf, fellowship and relaxation among like-minded businessmen,” as an ad from that era explained. (He also created the resort’s Putter Boy symbol.)

That halcyon age died in the late 1970s when the PGA Tour connected golf’s growing popularity to the game’s upwardly mobile fan base and realized there were princely fortunes to be made using tournament names to peddle Cadillacs, windows, retirement plans and loads of other products. As city names were subsequently replaced by corporate logos, local identities became irrelevant: The Azalea Open quickly faded into oblivion, while Greensboro became a billboard for Kmart, Chrysler and other corporate interests before morphing into the handsomely revived Wyndham Championship. Charlotte’s tournament sponsors included Kemper, Wachovia and now, Wells Fargo.

On the grassroots level, where the vast majority of the auld and honorable game has long existed, managing to survive everything from world wars to global economic crises, a little cozy company golf to flatter a boss or woo a prospective customer in the interest of an improved bottom line seems harmless enough — maybe even the American way.

If P.G. Wodehouse is correct that golf not only tests a fellow’s character but sometimes reveals the absence of it, perhaps golf’s greater contribution may be the sweet clarity it brings to any human association, along with genuine bonds of trust and friendship that can come from chasing an unwinnable game through the bosom of nature with a trusted companion — or even a potential client.

For what it’s worth, my friend Jasper reports that the “big cigar” element has all but disappeared from the first tees of his corporate outings, mirroring a continuing decline in both smoking and the game’s popularity. A decade ago, an estimated 30 million Americans played golf at least eight times a year, the National Golf Foundation reported. In 2015, the total was 24.1 million.

Golf, like success in business, is a game that’s difficult to play and often impossible to master.

“As my clients have gotten older,“ Jasper notes, “there seems to be a whole lot less talk about business and more conversation about wives and grandchildren and places we’d like to go before we give up the game. Business hasn’t been fun the past 10 years. Golf with a buddy at least is always fun — especially if you take some lunch money from
his pockets.”

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