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MBA Jungle - September 30, 2003

What Your Golf Game Says About You: Course Behavior

A game of golf can reveal surprising things about your boss, your client… and you.

Some time ago, a venture capitalist my brother was pursuing invited him to his country club. Rounding out the foursome was another duo of entrepreneurs also looking for start-up capital. Early in the match, one of them sliced a ball into the trees, then proceeded to kick it back into the fairway. The “foot wedge,” as it’s sarcastically known, is not one of the fourteen legal clubs allowed on the course.

“Did you see that?” the would-be investor gasped. “That guy wants five million bucks from me. Fat chance!”

Golfers have long seen the game as a measure of personal character, especially when it comes to handling on-the-course adversity. Would you entrust your money to someone who kicks a ball, or throws his club?

Yet, beyond character judgment calls, people’s behavior on the course can indicate how they negotiate, and whether they’re suited to sell, lead, trade, or communicate. Betting, joking, even driving the cart, all provide clues about people. The key to using golf as a business tool, beyond just getting hours alone with colleagues or customers, is understanding how to read the players and making sure they read you the way you want them to.

“There are style differences among types of people,” says Alan Fine, a sports psychologist and president of InsideOut Development, a Salt Lake City-area consulting firm specializing in performance issues. “Analytic types like thinking about what they’ll do, and spend a lot of time planning. Creative types are more grip-and-rip-it. They’re likely to step up without analyzing the wind, the club selection, and the target. You see the same decision-making approaches in an organization. Some want to think everything through, others want to take action immediately.”

Shelby Futch, a golf professional, and Jennifer Munro, a sales executive, have explored the links between golf and business while developing corporate programs at the Golf Digest Schools, a national chain headquartered in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The duo divides the populace into four types, based on results from a survey they call the “NeuroGolf Profile,” which measures behavior and attitudes.

“Challengers” about 10 percent of the population strive to control. They’re assertive, decisive, and competitive, and tend to bet on the greens (and lead in the boardroom). “Social golfers” (20 percent) are extroverts, focusing mainly on relationships. Both types usually thrive in creative, authoritarian positions. Twenty percent are “technicals,” or conformists, who focus on rules and systems, while half of all golfers are “traditionals” patient, cooperative types striving for consensus. Technicals and traditionals typically aren’t big-picture people, but they get things done.

Sure, people may demonstrate varied traits, but, say Futch and Munro, they tend to fall into one category. A guy who chats about the lovely greens, tells jokes, and makes introductions is a “social.” A player who examines scorecards, gravitates to the driver’s seat of the cart, and proposes bets is a competitive challenger a trait you want in, say, a salesperson. A player keeping track of the hitting order is a technical who emphasizes process a desirable quality in a CFO. Traditionals blend in, calling less attention to themselves perhaps typical of support staff.

Pace of play is a leading indicator, and often a sore point between contrasting types. Challengers want to keep the game moving and get anxious when they feel they’re being held up. They’ll opt for ready-golf, wherein players hit the ball when ready, as opposed to the by-the-rules style of hitting in order according to who is furthest from the pin. Technicals, on the other hand, typically analyze the greens from multiple angles before attempting the putt - and begin to chafe challengers because they appear to be plodding and indecisive.

“You see it play out at the office, too,” Futch says. “The corporate counsel is patient and conforming making sure all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed while the sales guys can’t understand why it takes so long to get a contract through. The counselor is thinking, ÔHere he goes again. He never pays attention to details.’ “

The other big indicator, say Futch and Munro, is the amount of socializing players need. Are they chatty or quiet on the course? Introverts and extroverts are usually a bad match.

“Right away there is an element of distrust,” Munro says. “One is sharing, one isn’t. One is communicative, one isn’t. The introvert is likely to start imagining things about the extrovert that may or may not be true that they’re superficial or insincere or not focused on their game. If you’re trying to build a relationship, one of the first things to ask yourself is whether someone is outgoing or private. Then be mindful of how you’re coming across.”

But Fine, who’s worked with golfers like Colin Montgomery and Phillip Price, is cautious about extrapolating too much. “I’ve taken executives out on a golf course and noticed them become nervous and embarrassed about what people thought; whereas in a different situation, no problem,” he says. “They believe in their abilities in one arena but not in the other. It just depends.”

For Futch and Munro, the key is understanding motivations so the intersection of golf and business does not become a crash scene.

So, was the entrepreneur who kicked the ball cheating? “You could read the ‘foot wedge’ incident a couple of ways,” says Futch. “Venture capitalists play by the rules. They often don’t know much about the industry they’re investing in, so they emphasize trust. ‘Is this guy honest? Is he 100 percent accountable?’ They’re traditional.

“Entrepreneurs are challengers. They’re results-oriented. If there is no bet, it’s just a social occasion, the rules aren’t in effect, and kicking the ball back out to the fairway without a game on is meaningless and doesn’t say a thing about his character. If a game is on, the same guy may play a hundred percent by the rules.”

As long as everyone agrees up front, doing things that are clearly illegal in a competition, such as playing footsie with the ball, is kosher in social games of golf. What ultimately matters, though, is how people construe the signals. If the investor interprets the entrepreneur’s motive as cheating, he won’t ante up his five million bucks. Perception is reality and par for the course.


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