A college class recently asked me where I learned the most in school: the classroom or my internships. The answer was neither of those but rather the golf course. While I’d played a bit in my youth, I was shown the game’s true capacity when I caddied throughout college at one of the country’s more renowned courses. The experience exposed me to a wide range of industries and professionals representing just about every race and religion. For instance, my sophomore year I ditched an accounting class to caddy for the founder of Costco, Jeff Brotman. The way I looked at it, I’d much rather learn directly from the person who built a billion-dollar enterprise than how to construct a theoretical balance sheet.
Leaving the classroom one of the students said, “My family belongs to a golf course, and I clearly need to start spending more time there.” I encouraged him to give it a shot, for golf can be an unparalleled catalyst for one’s personal and professional life, according to The Economist. Ray Dalio, for example, who created the world’s largest hedge fund, started his career by caddying in order to glean investment advice and make money. However, especially to young people and outsiders, golf can be commonly misunderstood.
I started as one of those outsiders and didn’t hail from a golf family. In fact, I’m still the only person in my immediate family who even plays the game. When I first played 9 holes, I didn’t own a collared shirt and had to borrow one from a friend. But that was the least of my worries since I didn’t own golf clubs either, so I borrowed an ancient set of Wilson’s from my grandmother. The clubs had bright turquoise head covers and were stuffed into a matching leather bag. So I stuck out like Rickie Fowler but was the exact opposite of debonair.
That first golf experience was around 1997, and I have been hooked ever since. When I started caddying in college, I didn’t understand the full magnitude of golf and how it would impact my life for years to come. I just knew that I loved the game, its culture and its traditions. Golf has led me all over the country to play, but more importantly, it’s the genesis of some of my closest friends and most meaningful experiences.
Sensing my love for the game, I’ve been asked by many coworkers and friends how to get involved. But I warn them not to pursue golf in an attempt to “make connections” and gain a professional edge, for it will ultimately backfire. However, if they try the game and genuinely enjoy it, there are several fundamental advantages afforded by golf that other interests and hobbies cannot provide:
Golf can introduce you to a lot of people. There’s a saying that goes, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” I’d argue that both are important but being cordial with a large number of people generally isn’t a bad thing. This is an area where golf stands alone. I absolutely despise “networking events,” where overdressed strangers force conversations and business cards onto each other. But golf seamlessly allows you to meet new and interesting people in a friendly setting. And best of all, they can be of all ages and walks of life.
Golf allows you to truly get to know other people, organically adding depth to your relationships. In the age of cell phones and social media, there aren’t many environments where you can spend four to five uninterrupted hours with a small group of people. While golfing, you are able to learn more about them and simply catch up on life. But be careful on this aspect of golf; as Warren Buffet says, “Time is the friend of the wonderful company and the enemy of the mediocre.” Similarly, golf is the friend of a good person and will reveal a bad one. So if you’re a miscreant, people will figure it out quickly on the links.
Golf subtly reveals how you are viewed by others. For your fellow golfers either invite you to play with them or they don’t. Are you an enjoyable playing companion? Do you cheat? Do you have a valid handicap?
And there are other tells that golf provokes. Are you clutch or do you crumble under pressure? Do you show sincere interest in others well-being or are you mostly focused on yourself? Do you help your opponent look for a lost ball? Are you courteous to any staff that may work at the golf course?
Golf teaches you a lot about yourself. At its core, golf is about competition; you’re trying to hit a stationary ball, while considering scores of internal and external variables. Like a microcosm of life, golf demands answers to fundamental questions for success. Can you thrive individually but can you also be a good teammate? Can you deal with both good and bad luck? Can you respond to adversity and bounce back after a bad swing or misfortune? Just like walking into a boardroom or job interview, can you block out distractions, corral your emotions and execute? To me, this is the aspect that lures the most competitive, accomplished people to play golf, and it always will.