Kerry Bowie’s daughters have dreams. Big ones. His 15-year-old wants to go to law school, maybe dabble in politics. His 12-year-old plans to be a business magnate.
And while their schedules are jammed with everything from piano and violin lessons to soccer and volleyball tournaments, at some point this summer Bowie plans to take them to Franklin Park in the heart of Boston, place a golf club in their hands and have them learn about a game whose influence extends far beyond fairways and greens.
“There are some things people miss out on by not doing it,” Bowie says. “To be that young lady who plays golf, it changes things.”
Especially in the corporate world, where the golf course — and sometimes the 19th hole, the driving range or the locker room — can open doors that shareholder meetings, working lunches, Zoom calls and cocktail mixers cannot.
THERE’S A LONG RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOLF AND POWER
If Bowie needs to offer his daughters proof, he need only point to the way the tectonic plates under pro golf moved last month, when the acrimonious standoff between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf ended with a staggering deal that materialized seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a detente whose groundwork was laid by quiet negotiations between leaders of both organizations during a round at a tony private golf club southwest of London.
But the golf course’s reputation as a safe space where business can get done and careers — professional, political or otherwise — can be forever altered is hardly new.
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie agreed to a merger between his company with one led by J.P. Morgan after a round at The Saint Andrew’s Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York in the early 1900s. Nearly every U.S. president over the last century has put a tee in the ground with Secret Service, advisors, allies, rivals — and occasionally an agenda — in tow.
So it’s not a coincidence that most Fortune 500 CEOs believe golf has helped their career. No wonder as many as 90% of business executives have taken up the game, seeing it as a way to unwind while also making connections far away from the formality of an office setting.
No suits. No ties. No heels. No briefcases or sling bags. No computers and (hopefully) no phones. Just a sport that can be equally frustrating to all regardless of skill level, with ample amounts of downtime in between shots to talk — and, just as important, to get a gauge of just who exactly you’re playing with.
“When you’re on the golf course with someone, it’s the best place to learn about their ethics and their values and their emotional intelligence as well,” said Susan Ascher, president and CEO of New Jersey-based consulting firm The Ascher Group. “Whether they’re good or bad golfers doesn’t matter. Are they concerned about the welfare of the game of the people they’re playing with? Are they considerate of you?”
Golf’s reputation, however, comes with baggage. The game has traditionally been played by the affluent — most of them men, most of them white — some of whom organized country clubs that can set the parameters of membership at their discretion. That has, historically, included racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.
“It’s been a man’s sport,” said Dr. Deborah Gray, a marketing professor at Central Michigan University. “Research shows that golf is a legacy thing. It’s generational.”
And in that way, exclusionary, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
THE CULTURE IS AT THE TOP AND IN EVERYDAY PLAY
LIV was born in part out of Saudi Arabia’s bid to fulfill the “Vision 2030” initiative created by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The vision includes investing heavily in sports and entertainment in hopes of diversifying the country’s economy, and lessening its reliance on its massive oil reserves.
The upstart organization failed to make much of a dent globally. TV ratings in the U.S., in particular, were a fraction of what the PGA Tour draws weekly. Yet in less than 12 months it managed to bring the PGA to the negotiating table, creating a partnership that gives the Saudis the access to the U.S. golf world that LIV had been trying — and failing — to secure.
The alliance between LIV and the PGA Tour has been met with skepticism and a raised eyebrow in most circles, including the U.S. Congress. As members of both tours gather at this week’s British Open at Royal Liverpool, the leadership that put the deal together are hoping both the public and the players themselves will be able to strip away the sensitive politics — not easy, given Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses — and look at the bottom line.
The fact that the pact was between two groups in a sport whose image is so closely aligned with the corporate world — witness those massive sponsor tents that ring the fairways at PGA Tour events — could be considered a case of sport imitating life.
Last month’s announcement appeared to come out of the blue — to the general public and in many cases, the golfers themselves. There was no paper trail. No leaks. Just a paradigm-altering decision reached quietly. Maybe too quietly. All of it symbolic of a game steeped in the culture of connections.
While Gray can see the still-murky LIV-PGA partnership eventually working, she’s unconcerned about it affecting people picking up the game. To her, most business professionals who play can draw a distinct line between their feelings about the top of the sport and the benefits and relationship-building that take place when an afternoon conference call turns into a friendly nine holes.
Alisha Jernack certainly has. She began taking lessons about a decade ago not out of some deep-rooted calling but as a means to an end. In her 20s at the time, she couldn’t help but notice the number of executives and managers at Mazars, the international audit, tax and advisory firm where she worked, who went out to the course together. There were conversations being had that she felt compelled to be a part of.
She saw only one solution: grab a club and swing away.
“I had no interest prior,” said Jernack. “I saw it as an opportunity to advance in my career.”
Jernack draws a direct line from some of the relationships she has established on the golf course to increased opportunities at work. “Quite often,” she says, the people she meets “are able to refer business opportunities back and forth to each other because we know what we do.” She became a partner at Mazars in 2020.
While the groups Jernack often plays with can still be male-dominated, she’s noticed a slight shift in the demographics of late. So has Ascher, who began organizing “Course Connection” outings at Montclair Golf Club about 10 years ago. The outings — about three to four a year — include instruction and a nine-hole scramble followed by a mixer. Ascher estimates the gender split is pretty equal, with interest among women “exploding” in recent years.
“Women are seeing that, yeah, if the guys are doing it and they’re making deals on the golf course, why can’t I?” Ascher said.
Women, however, face obstacles that men do not, particularly when it comes to child care. Gray has been an advocate for increasing opportunities for women to get involved with the game, something she believes can be done by having outings scheduled into the work day instead of after hours or on weekends. She notes, though, that women may need to adjust their mindset when they hop in a cart.
“Men tend to network with people who can help them,” Gray said. “They are more strategic and utilitarian. Women are more true to self. They tend to network with people they like.”
HELPING OPEN GOLF TO NEW GROUPS OF PLAYERS
Golf, with its thick rule book and unwritten etiquette — no stepping in someone’s line on the green, and please replace your divots — can be difficult for newcomers. Yet Steve Branch sees the game as vital to career development, one of the reasons he helped start the “Writing The Code” program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management last fall.
Branch, who holds the post of diversity and belonging leader at the school, bumped into Michael Packard, foundation director of PGA REACH New England, at an analytics conference a couple of years ago. A light-bulb moment followed.
“Minority students could have a leg up if introduced to the game before they needed to play the game in the future,” Branch said. “So I saw this as an introductory opportunity to, let’s say, give them a chance to learn before they needed to be counted on to leverage a promotion or leverage a career opportunity going forward.”
More than 30 students representing 11 countries participated in an inaugural event last fall that included instruction from teaching professionals and analysis of their golf swings. It also gave them a chance to talk to alumni who believe being around the game made a direct impact in their lives — alumni like Bowie, 51, who was managing chemical gas systems at Texas Instruments in the late 1990s when he was introduced to golf. The facilitators? A group of managers, most of whom, like Bowie, were Black.
“I was like, ‘golf’? I’m from Alabama, I grew up playing football and basketball and baseball,'” Bowie says.
He grew up not far from a golf course in a small town. To this day, he’s never stepped foot on the first tee. “You didn’t go play golf,” he said. “It really wasn’t something that was open to you.”
Bowie is now a managing partner at MSAAD Partners, a firm that provides technical assistance to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in communities of color. He admits, laughing, that his game remains a work in progress, but he sees his relationship with golf as emblematic of what he hopes is the changing face of the sport.
The game has provided a connective tissue for Bowie and a handful of former classmates who go on yearly golf getaways together. Those getaways can serve as an incubator, a place where in between all the trash talk and poker games, things are getting done.
“People are getting hired on those trips,” he says. “People have launched businesses or talked about what they’re going to be doing on those trips. These types of things definitely happen.”
That’s one of the reasons Bowie is intent on making sure his daughters understand the difference between a five-iron and a fairway wood.
“If they’re golfers,” he says, “it’s going to open up more doors for them.”
Associated Press Sports Writer Will Graves is based in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WillGravesAP