I went golfing the other day at Quilchena G&CC with my father, Robert Bucher, a retired healthcare CEO, and an associate of his, an investment broker named Rob Turnbull. The morning was sunny but cold, the last day this spring that tee times were delayed for frost.
I’ve played golf with my dad and Rob several times – they’re business associates and friends – but that day, in addition to rousing my golf game from its hibernation, I had an assignment: to eavesdrop on the men. I was looking for insight into why golf is such important ground for building relationships, especially business relationships.
People who try to explain the question usually make the point that nowhere else do you spend so much time with someone, whether friend, stranger, or potential client. As Tom Gaglardi, president of Northlands Properties and an eight handicap at Shaughnessy, gruffly put it to me: “Golf's as good a four hours as you can spend trying to understand somebody.”
Tom’s right, but it’s not just the amount of time you spend with someone on the course that makes it instructive. It’s the kind. Concealing your true character in golf is difficult. The grammar of business – the salutations and seductions, feints and calculations, politenesses and aggressions – are gestures you consciously control. The transactions take place in sharp focus, and the more pronounced your mastery of them, the better a businessperson you are.
Golf is the opposite. It has an explicit goal – advancing through 18 holes as efficiently as possible – but instead of in sharp focus, its crucial information transmits in the haze of the periphery. The reason? Few golfers want to examine how well they’re playing. Chalk it up to abjection: my four-putt on the first hole, for example, or Dad’s drive on the narrow fourth – a ferocious slice that lofted high over a bank of cottonwoods and landed on the Richmond dike, 40 yards out of bounds. That morning, though, it was Rob who took the cake, shanking a chip into the green-side pond on 17. “Pig!” he screamed after the ball as it sank.
With so many moving levers in a golf swing, and so much velocity, a lot can go wrong. For most golfers, a lot does. It bears remembering that par on most courses is 72. Tiger Woods’s scoring average in 2000 – the year he won nine tournaments and earned a PGA Tour record $9.2 million in prize money – was 67.79. Your garden-variety Vancouver club champion averages scores in the low 70s, while your typical weekend hacker will break 100 twice in his life. For golfers, competence is cruelly the exception, not the rule.
The central illusion of human beings – and males, specifically – is that of control. Against all evidence, we believe we bend the world to our will. But in golf, disorder and failure are the only constants. Perhaps it's perverse that people trying to establish business relations would choose such humbling recreation, but it’s precisely humiliation that makes golf so revealing a test. Everyone is beautiful in victory, but few are so in defeat. Where mastery keeps its secrets, failure divulges all.
Fortunately, for the golfer and businessperson both, failure is beside the point. The reason: It matters naught how well you play. Just as money and rank guarantee no skill for living, fine ballstriking guarantees no talent for the game. Neither golf nor life is about achieving ultimate goals; what matters is grace in transit.
And were they graceful in their golf, Dad and Rob, walking through that spring morning? That would be stretching it. But as I watched them play – grimacing, conspiring and kibitzing all the way – I thought, Maybe it's not the golf that matters so much after all.