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When to Talk Business on the Golf Course

talking business on the course
Imagine your client hits his opening tee shot into someone's ornamental dwarf. You give him a mulligan. He follows it up with a shot into a part of the course where even the squirrels find no forage. Now imagine that prior to those shots, you had just asked, as nonchalantly as possible, "Jeffrey, have you had some thoughts about our $17 million overpass proposal?"

The only thought in his mind is that he's lost two balls in front of you, several people behind you on the tee, and perhaps even the assistant golf professional who's always peeking through the pro shop window in the hope of amusement.

Deal making on the course is all about mood. Catch the game in the right spirit and your playing partner will feel it has bestowed such generosity upon him that he, in turn, will want to be generous. But catch it in a destructive frame of mind and your putative contract will evaporate before your very eyes.

So here's the first suggestion:

Make the sixth hole your first threshold. No matter how good a golfer your client might be, he (or she) won't have found any sort of consistent performance before the sixth. By then, he probably will have navigated at least one par 5 and one par 3. He will have some sense not only of how he is swinging it, but also of how you are gracing (or disgracing) the course. Your game has an effect on him too. Six holes will at least give you some sense of how the day might develop, of how the lunar dynamics of golf might be working.

But that still might be too soon to start the business talk. I recently was asked by a client to give him tips on his swing on the first fairway. What to do? I tried. On the seventh tee, he hit two tee shots — one that dived into the ravine 40 yards in front of the tee and one that looped to the left and threatened a woodpecker, who happened to be 70 feet up a tree in an area that was far out of bounds.

The client turned around and said, through fuming nostrils: "That was your fault." Through the next 15 minutes, he believed it. Which is why I felt lucky that, given we had known each other a while, there had been no business talk yet.

Amen Corner
If you're still not sure, trust your luck to Amen Corner. Most people know the phrase because they've heard it used to describe the 11th, 12th, and 13th holes at Augusta National. But, originally, the words referred to a part of the church where specific congregants would gather to assist the preacher with encouraging phrases during a service. When the preacher offered a particularly persuasive argument or uplifting turn of phrase, the congregants in Amen Corner say "amen" or "Praise the Lord."

So it should be in your round of golf. By the time you've reached the 11th tee, the day has unfolded in a certain rhythm. Your client should be at one with his game (good or bad) and at ease with his second beer (I do not recommend Coors Light). Once he has teed off at the 11th — and not before — you should offer some delicate conversation that might contain offers, figures, ideas, and solicitations. Use the rest of the 11th and the next two holes to ease your way towards your business goal. Then stop. It is then that you might best hope to hear your client's "amen."

By the time you reach the 14th tee, you will know whether your goal is achievable or whether this just isn't going to be that sort of business golfing day.

With the last five holes, don't return to business — unless your client chooses to. The last five holes still give him a chance to end the golfing part with some sort of flourish, one that he might be able to exaggerate to everyone at the 19th hole, to the lover he will see later, and even to you the next time you see him.

Most business people, given the chance, would rather be a professional golfer than a mere moneymaker. When you see rich men such as Charles Schwab concentrating like a watchmaker over a recalcitrant Rolex at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, do you think they're more interested in their revenue numbers? One would wager not. So let him indulge in his PGA fantasies as he finishes out the round.

Hopefully, many of the worst shots will already be behind him. Hopefully, there will still be a chance of golfing redemption (should it be needed) after the 13th.

Yes, Amen Corner has destroyed many a round at the Masters. But, for you and your proposal for an overpass that will mean the sad demolition of a local museum, it's your best moment for getting an "amen" out of your client.

Back to the 2011 BNET Guide to Business and Golf >>