Business and Golf: Blunders Too Stupid to Believe

man misses golf shot

Last Updated Aug 16, 2010 5:17 PM EDT

Golf blunders
It was a golden afternoon at a New England country club, with the sun beaming brightly and a soft breeze blowing through the conifers and oaks. Ducks splashed in the pond that flanked the second fairway, and the melodic trill of songbirds was interrupted only by the chatter of a salesman yakking on his phone. Standing on the first tee, Mike Martinez listened to the soundtrack with dismay.

As the vice president of business development for an Internet start-up, Martinez had organized the company golf outing as a way to thank investors and as a means for his young staff to build relationships with would-be advertisers.

The weather was sublime and the turnout was terrific. All systems go, except for one thing.

As he progressed down the fairway, the young salesman, so smooth around the office but so clueless on the course, kept his phone pressed to his year, blathering to a buddy about the splendor of the golf course, the surging Red Sox, the cuteness of the cart girl. And on. And on.

When it came time to hit, he'd put the phone down, only to pick it up again as his playing partners swung. He was a constant, irksome presence. But the coup-de-grace came between the sixth and seventh holes when he hopped into his cart and, absorbed in conversation, drove the vehicle over a potential client's foot. "No bones were broken," Martinez says. "But a business relationship was definitely ruined."

Within weeks, the salesman was let go.

Business golf, or some permutation of it, has likely been around as long as golf itself (surely the Scottish shepherds who played the game in the 12th century were prone to discussing their stock and trade). And like golf, it has rules of etiquette, some unwritten, but nearly all an outgrowth of simple common sense.

Which makes it even more amazing that so many business golfers violate the code. "You'd think that more people would pay closer attention, but most golfers are focused only on their swing, and most business people treat the golf experience as if they were playing with their buddies," says Suzanne Woo, a California attorney and author of the book On Course For Business, a guide to business golf conduct. "As a result, they end up sabotaging business relationships when so much is at stake."

Tales of blunder abound, like missteps on an endless blooper highlight reel.

Woo relates this scene from a golf course in the Arizona desert. A human resources consultant was paired with a potential client, and from a ball-striking perspective, it wasn't a good day. As he struggled to find the fairway on hole after hole, the consultant showed signs of a smoldering temper—a clear no-no in any business golf setting.

When yet another drive went wayward, this time landing behind a cactus, the consultant went ballistic. Like a modern-day Paul Bunyan, he began clubbing the cactus, albeit with an iron, not an ax. Says Woo: "The guy he was playing with just said, 'Hey, that's a saguaro, and they're federally protected!' Needless to say, he knew he could never do business with him."

In golf, as in business, the great ones (and the smart ones) show grace under pressure.

Unlike the young corporate up-and-comer who got paired with his boss at a company outing and began downing beers, one after the other. Maybe he was trying to be social. Maybe he was trying to ease his stress. Whatever the case, before the end of the round, he passed out in the golf cart.

"His boss just flipped him out of the cart and left him lying there on the fairway," Woo says. "Oh, and then he fired him the next day."

In golf, as in business, you've got to know your limits. And your skills. Mike Martinez recalls another company outing when a young executive, overdosed on ego, insisted on playing from the back tees, despite being a novice golfer. His partners rolled their eyes but said nothing, until the man shanked a tee shot and the ball rocketed hard right, rattling around inside the cart and narrowly missing his boss's head.

"I can't say for sure that there were any consequences," Martinez says. "But it's not the sort of thing you want to bring up in your annual review."

Here's another incident no one should be proud of. Scot Duke watched it unfold at a golf course in Las Vegas, as the threesome ahead of him took to the first tee. As the president of Innovative Business Golf Solutions, a Texas-based social media company that works with the golf industry, and the founder of the Business Golf Country Club, a networking group for business people who golf, Duke is attuned to the subtleties of proper on-course conduct. But even a novice would have noticed that something wasn't right. Two of the players in the group looked like legit golfers, dressed in collared shirts and slacks. But the third was wearing a suit and tie and had come to the course with reams of paperwork.

"As the round unfolded, it was clear that this guy was a salesman and that he was under pressure from the home office to seal the deal right then and there," Duke says. "It was also clear that the two guys with him didn't want to talk business. They were there to play golf."

Still, the man in the suit kept up his hard-sell, shoving papers in partners' faces. Before long, four carts raced up and joined the group. Out jumped a squadron of security guards. The two beleaguered businessmen had called the pro shop and requested that the salesman be carted off.

"It's a simple rule," Duke says. "Conduct yourself in a professional manner. This guy clearly didn't have a clue."

Cluelessness, of course, is not uncommon.  In another instance, at a club in Texas, Duke was playing in a pro-am with a mild-mannered golf pro and two young executives, one of whom wouldn't stop talking on his phone. He was wasting the day, spoiling a chance to get to know the pro, and, who knows, maybe arrange a sponsorship deal. The ambient noise was so incessant, even the easy-going golf pro couldn't stand it. Disguising his intent, he asked the businessman if he could borrow his phone.

"So the guy hands him the phone, and what does the pro do?" Duke says. "He turns and throws it in the lake." The young man was stunned into silence, and a peaceful quiet fell over the golf course for the first time that day.