Golf: A Crash Course

Dec. 21, 2004
Execs who want to improve their stock price should hit the links. For those often stuck in the rough, here's a way to improve.

The biggest deals in business are made outside the boardroom. So show statistics from a recent New York Times survey comparing the golf handicaps of CEOs to their companies' stock market performance. General Electric Co.'s hard-driving John F. Welch Jr., for example, boasts a single-digit handicap. Return on GE's stock was 51% in 1997, up from 40% in 1996. Since low-handicapper M. Christine Jacobs took over as CEO of Norcross, Ga.-based Theragenics Corp. in 1993 her company's stock has appreciated by more than 700%. What about the rest of us? The ones who want to build business relationships but shoot in the high 90s or worse for 18 holes. With a handicap of 23, Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates probably won't embarrass himself on the course, but he admits to being frustrated and humbled by the game. I'm just as frustrated and humbled as Bill Gates, so when a colleague invited me to play in a company tournament to be held a few weeks later, mild panic set in. I tried to decline the invitation. My colleague refused to listen as he rattled off a list of corporate VIPs and valued customers who would compete. Could there exist an elixir to help me go from shooting in the high 120s to the low 90s in 30 days? Pete Consoli, the golf professional for 35 years at New Jersey's Springdale Golf Club chuckled at my objective. "It takes longer than that to become Tiger Woods," he quipped. Try to play more than a few times a year or at least find a driving range, he advised more seriously. But booking a tee time in New York City can be as challenging as sinking an eagle on a five-par hole. Too many people want to use too few courses. Golfers are advised to book two weeks in advance. And vying for space at New York driving ranges can prove just as fierce. There had to be an easier way. Jay Morelli had an answer. Twenty years ago Morelli, then the resident golf professional at southern Vermont's Mount Snow Golf Course, launched the Mount Snow Golf School to help individuals like me and to fill the golf course and ski lodge in the summer. The idea was to take people with tremendous enthusiasm but little time and intensively work on their game. "We wanted it to be affordable, where a man or woman could improve their skills through a consistent teaching method," Morelli describes. He organized sessions to cover equipment evaluation, etiquette, technical skills, and psychology. For his first course, Morelli recruited a handful of friends including some from the professional circuit to serve as instructors. The phones rang off the hook, and 38 people attended the school. Today Morelli employs 39 golf professionals at Mount Snow. He has launched six other schools from Crystal River, Fla., to New York's Finger Lakes region. Nearly 60,000 golfers have attended his courses, and 30% of those have returned for another session. Morelli offers two- to five-day courses, and he's not the onlyone. Golf schools have sprung up around the country catering to the 26 million Americans who claim to play golf. At least 200 operate in Florida alone. A unit of Golf Digest magazine runs schools in several states. "The important thing," advises Springdale's Consoli, "is to choose a place with good instructors. I've seen people return worse than when they left." I chose Mount Snow's weekend program (cost: $420 including accommodation, lessons, and most meals) for its low student-instructor ratio, and its course-management skills offering golfers the ability to read the wind and other elements. The program started with a self-assessment form asking each of the 87 participants -- ranging from manufacturing executives to doctors and investment bankers -- to rank their skill level, to describe their game's strengths, and areas for improvement. Other students had goals similar to my own: train drives to stay on the fairway, learn to play well enough to invite clients to play, and have fun. "In business, especially the paper industry, a lot of deals are made on the golf course," admitted Wayne Franklin, CFO for the North American unit of paper manufacturer Arjo Wiggins Appleton PLC. "I haven't made any on the course yet because I've been embarrassed to get out there." The Golf School puts students into foursomes according to skill level and assigns them to a golf pro for two days of instruction. Players work on grips, foot, and head positioning. Through short videos taken of each golfer's swing, students see their flaws. In addition to the 10 hours on ranges, fairways, greens, and in sand traps, students can attend special lectures covering women in golf, warming up and warming down, and the mind game.

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