Linking Up: How to Network on the Golf Course

Doing Business on the Green
When a company hosts a golf event, it’s likely hoping to close a deal or secure new clients by the time the last hole is sunk. But everybody has a different approach to the game—and to doing business. 

“Historically, people would have been appalled about doing business on a golf course,” says Ken Wang, owner of the Pound Ridge Golf Club in Pound Ridge, NY. “But today, golf, like everything else, is in transition. It’s rare that someone will say, ‘Okay, I’m going to leave my office and be unreachable for the next six hours.’” 

For this reason, Pound Ridge is installing wireless Internet on the course, allowing golfers to be better connected to their companies while playing. Todd Leavenworth, general manager at the club, says this will allow golfers to do things like have external documents scanned, printed, or faxed into the pro shop to be waiting for them upon return. 

“There is an energy level to bringing the real world to the golf course. It’s an exciting prospect to us,” says Wang.

However, when it comes to the actual wheeling and dealing, it’s best to leave particulars until after the event, says Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and author of Poised for Success. “The time to mingle is usually before or after the event, because people are very focused on the game.”

Whitmore also advises leaving bad news at the office. If your company is in transition, engaging in big layoffs, or having a difficult time financially, don’t bring that into the game. “This is a time to relax; this is a time to bond and to work off your stress, not to bring stress into the conversation,” Whitmore says.

Steve Friedlander, vice president of golf for the Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Coast and for Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, both in California, encourages keeping things light and avoiding a “hard sell” on the course. 

One soft-sell approach: using the golf carts’ GPS devices as display opportunities. “I’ve seen clients run segments on their business in these spaces,” Leavenworth says.

The sun is shining, and a gentle breeze embraces you as you survey your surroundings. 

Your eyes sweep over deep-green lawns, the occasional tawny-colored rough peppering the swells, the cool blue of the sea in the distance. As you prepare to tee up, you share a laugh with your colleagues and, amid the casual conversation, wind up discussing the next step on an important project. 

It’s no wonder the golf course is a popular setting for networking with colleagues and business partners. The relaxed outdoor setting provides ample opportunities for people to get to know one another on a more personal level and forge deeper relationships.

“The big thing with golf is the social aspect,” says Todd Leavenworth, general manager of the Pound Ridge Golf Club in Pound Ridge, NY. “You get to joke around and laugh at each other. There’s more of a networking capability at a golf course versus in a boardroom, where it’s a structured meeting.”

Of course, “ensuring that the right decision makers attend is key to a successful golf event,” says Bryan Starr, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Southern California’s Orange County Chapter and a frequent golf-event attendee. 

Even so, networking doesn’t just happen; like a newly planted seed, it needs proper nurturing to grow into something real. Here’s how to make the fairway more conducive to achieving desired business goals.

Matching Goals With Formats
The first step to make sure a golf event results in successful networking opportunities is to pick the right format—both for your corporate desires and your attendees. 

“We talk to meeting planners and ask them, ‘What’s your objective?’” says Steve Friedlander, vice president of golf for Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Coast and Oak Creek Golf Club in Irvine, both in California. Such goals might include using golf to impress bigwig clients, win new business, or encourage teamwork among colleagues and potential business partners. 

So, for example, if the goal for the event is to have people relax and get to know one another in a kind of equal-footing environment, Friedlander suggests “a format that’s not competitive and allows them to play golf in a way that even a beginner isn’t going to feel intimidated.”

The type of game also helps to create the right setting for the kind of mingling desired, and there are many different options for group play, including the following: 
• If the corporate goal is to close deals on the green, for example, the planner might select foursomes to match target clients with key executives. 

• A blind draw (randomly assigning members to teams) encourages ice breaking among less familiar colleagues or business partners.

• A scramble or “best ball”-style game (where teams choose the one best shot following every stroke, with each team member then continuing on from that one spot) encourages a more collaborative atmosphere, as a team’s overall score is an amalgam of the players’ best performances. “It creates a sense of teamwork rather than competitiveness associated with a single-player score,” notes Starr. “The format allows everyone to contribute.”

• Another way to keep novice players or even non-golfers involved is to offer a putting contest on the side, adds J.J. Jaeger, director of sales and marketing for Coeur d’Alene Resort in Coeur d’Alene, ID. 

An important consideration during the format selection phase is to ensure all attendees have access to and quality time with key executives. Among some easy ways to encourage equal face-time opportunities is to have the CEO play one hole with each team, or the CEO could initiate a scramble shot on one hole, suggests Jaeger.

In general, adds Starr, “focus on the networking and business development, rather than flashy raffles and prizes.”  

The Importance of Proper Etiquette
It’s crucial to remember that although golf is a fun, more casual way to connect with peers or partners, an event with clients still qualifies as a business environment. How you and your attendees behave on the course says a lot about your company and your personal work ethic.

“You really can see a person’s integrity and mannerisms and how they approach different situations when they play any kind of sport,” explains Jacqueline Whitmore, etiquette expert and author of Poised for Success. “Golf, in particular, really challenges a person’s patience, and you can tell how they deal with success and failure when they’re playing. I once heard somebody say that golf teaches you about someone’s reactions to adversity. 

“And golf is steeped with a lot of protocol,” Whitmore adds. “People can tell if others follow rules and are courteous or discourteous to other players. It’s more important, I think, how people conduct themselves on the green versus how good a player they are.”

Friedlander recalls one instance where a player “embarrassed his company with his behavior. And it was our responsibility as an operator to go to the company and say, ‘We’re sorry, but this gentleman isn’t welcome on this property anymore.’ And the CEO said, ‘I agree with you. This gentleman isn’t welcome in our company anymore either.’ What your behavior is on the golf course tells your customers what kind of company they’re dealing with.”

The Clinical Approach
Among the many choices available to planners of golf events is whether to have a pro on hand or to hold a golf clinic before or during the event. Most experts contacted for this article praise the idea of including a clinic, which helps break the ice among players and leaves them better able to focus on their budding relationships on the course as opposed to their scores.

“One of the things we like to do is have a little golf clinic out on the driving range before the event to go over chipping or putting, or even to present a type of demo,” says Jaeger.

“The golf events we have open with a casual BBQ lunch and optional instruction for anyone who wants to brush up before the big round,” says Starr. “Let’s be honest, even the most experienced golfers appreciate a confidence builder when it comes to mixing business and golf.”

Play the Business Card
The more naked aspects of networking take place at the end of the tournament and at the post-game reception. 

“Follow-up is really important,” says Whitmore. “If you want to get to know these people better, or if you want to play with them again, the time to invite them is immediately after the game. You can get a commitment when people are still there with you versus once you get home. So just say, ‘Let’s do this again next week,’ or ask, ‘Are you available next month to do this again?’ ”

When it comes to the reception, make sure to keep it casual enough to encourage the continued flow of conversation and help those new relationships, forged on the green, blossom even further. A BBQ is a popular choice, and at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, since golfers need to take a boat to the golf course and back, post-game cruises are a popular option. 

“Whether for business or pleasure, golf is a bonding experience between individuals,” Starr says. “Establishing a positive relationship on the golf course enhances the business relationship.”