Golf is one of those games where business nearly equals pleasure. It’s the sport of choice for corporate czars and tycoons: Bill Gates has shanked and scuffed his way to billion-dollar deals on the golf course.
“Golf is a powerful networking tool when used properly. Top executives in many parts of the world know that once you get a potential client on to the golf course, you can learn all about them. Inevitably it leads to a business relationship. It’s a bond based on competition and rivalry… and friendship,” says Jamie Cunningham, founder of the Corporate Masters tournament and managing director of Professional Sports Group.
It’s easy to see why: top executives would be loath to clear their schedules for a five-hour meeting, but more than willing to play a game of golf. Business need not even be mentioned, until one is at the clubhouse – the 19th hole – which is when most deals are closed.
Cunningham recalls the time he worked with Mark McCormack, IMG founder and the man who invented sports marketing as we know it today. McCormack set up a golf game between top Ryder Cup golfer Bernhard Langer who was brand ambassador for Mercedes Benz and the then Japanese ambassador to Germany. That game directly resulted in upping the quota of imported Mercedes cars in Japan.
Cunningham’s own Middle East Corporate Masters tournament held in the UK is a corporate networking event par excellence. The British telecom company O2 used it as a platform to introduce their services to business leaders, with its corporate sales director closing £5 million worth of business during the event. Closer home, Leisurecorp sold significant amounts of real estate on the back of the Middle East Corporate Masters as its title sponsor.
Donald Trump once declared that some of his biggest business decisions were made on a golf course. The real estate mogul simply uses his playing companion’s on-course behaviour to decide whether he would be a worthwhile business associate.
“After 18 holes of golf and spending time on the 19th hole, doing actual business is like playing the 20th hole,” he says. Cunningham agrees. “There’s no question that you know more about the person when you play golf together – it’s a very individual game, you discover how they handle success and failure, and whether they are the people that you would want to do business with.”
As for the etiquettes to be followed while doing business on the course, Cunningham is a great believer in being who you are. “Stick to the rules of the game. I don’t believe in letting the opponent win – it’s a bit condescending. A competitive round of golf is enjoyable irrespective of whether you win or lose. If a client relationship hinges on the fact that you let the client win, it perhaps does not augur well for the long- term prospects.”
One of the most fruitful ways of expanding your network is participating in corporate events. Generally, each sponsor and organiser invites their top clients from within the local business community.
While corporate golf is mostly about relaxing and closing deals, what makes it special for professional golfers is the opportunity to find corporate sponsors at the Pro-Am. All one needs to do is pop the question to your multi-millionaire playing partner at the right time… preferably after he has made his first birdie on the 17th hole.
Golf could even be a perfect metaphor for business. After all, it takes pretty much the same skills to succeed at either: stick to the rules while taking risks, show integrity and honesty, establish personal trust to develop long-term relationships, and look the part. In these tough times, golf’s other big life lesson is the importance of planning ahead. You don’t simply play one shot at a time but anticipate and strategise for the course, a sure-shot method to definitely lower your handicap.
So why is golf the sport of international business? In a word, relationships. No other sport, participative or spectator, lends itself to developing lasting professional bonds like golf does. Not all deals are closed on the greens or even at the clubhouse. A round of golf can just be that, a good game with a fellow enthusiast. You win some, you lose some.
There are multimillionaires who don’t take the game seriously at all – golfers like Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, who, if rumours are to be believed, makes more money betting on golf courses during Pro-Ams than Nike pays him as product endorsement fee. There are other champs like Lance Armstrong who gave up on golf, because it wasn’t helping his self-esteem. But he is vastly outnumbered by the legions of masochists – including Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Jack Welch and Warren Buffet – who will battle the elements for half a day, humiliated by a little dimpled ball and yet come back for more.
Cunningham captures it in a nutshell, “Golf is the perfect combination and the equal playing field for the business world today.” These businesses love golf
The now weakening automobile sector has sponsored a majority of tournaments on various professional Tours and corporate circuits in the past. Mercedes has taken a pride of place on the US PGA Tour by taking the title rights of this winners-only tournament; they also have the Mercedes Championship on the European Tour. Buick (Tiger Woods’ personal sponsor), Chrysler and Ford were all major sponsors on the US PGA Tour. BMW have a presence on both sides of the pond. Volvo has strong connections with the European and Asian PGA Tours.
Banks and consulting firms are two other big sponsors of golf, worldwide. Deustche Bank was a big sponsor on the US PGA Tour. American Express is associated with the $8 million World Golf Championship event, while HSBC hosts the HSBC Champions, one of the biggest events in Asia.
Golf makes sense to electronics and telecom giants as well: Sony, Nokia, AT&T, luxury watchmakers Rolex and Omega are all big supporters of golf. Airlines derive a lot of marketing benefits tying up with the game: Emirates is one of the biggest sponsors in the category, and while it may not sponsor an event, it is widely present in various events as the official airlines.
The tourism authorities of various states and countries like Scotland, Ireland, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, China and several others have joined hands with leading international tournaments in their countries. They not only back up the tournaments financially, but also do several promotional activities around the event.