You are summoned to the corner office. Instead of berating you for your lousy report/poor punctuality/lack of personal hygiene, to your surprise The Boss invites you for a game of golf. Whoever The Boss is—your supervisor, the CEO, a prospective employer, the U.S. president or, most terrifying of all, a future in-law—the question is: How to get through the day without screwing up?Start with the right mind-set. Don't panic. Decide that you're going to make the most of this great opportunity. Executives who play frequently say they pay close attention to the other golfer's demeanor under pressure. "You really don't want to see someone swearing or throwing a club," says MGIC Investment Corp. CEO Curt Culver, a 2-handicapper ranked third among Golf Digest's best CEO golfers in 2006. "Just as bad would be someone who fails to take care of the course, who doesn't repair ball marks or replace divots. That would make me want to replace that person in my company."
Tune up your game, ensure your clubs and clothes are clean—check that your raingear isn't caked in mud—and find out all you can about the venue. "Make sure you know how to get to the club and have a sense of how formal it is, without bothering The Boss," says BlueLinx Holdings Inc. CEO Steve Macadam. Arriving late is inexcusable: Get there early to scope out the club and hit some warm-up shots. Call the golf shop in advance to ask about locker and practice facilities, tipping and dress codes. Some clubs still require women to wear skirts rather than shorts. Tiger might like the mock turtle, but it's safer to go with a collared shirt. If you do opt for shorts, they should be smart, tailored golf shorts—leave those Richard Simmons numbers at home. Your golf shoes should be spotless. "You don't want to look like you came off the Caddyshack' movie set," says former Mosaic Company CEO Fritz Corrigan. Bottom line, according to Principal Financial Group CEO J. Barry Griswell: "There's no excuse for poor taste."
On the day, your job is to keep your foot away from your mouth. Don't talk for the sake of talking. And don't act as if you two are suddenly best buddies by cracking jokes and giving The Boss the needle. Read a newspaper from cover to cover on the morning of the game—you want to be able to talk knowledgeably about anything. Don't be disappointed if an opportunity to share your killer business idea doesn't arise. In general, "stay away from business," says Griswell—especially office gossip. "If The Boss wants to talk business, he or she will bring it up. Stick with sports, family and so on," he says. "Take your cue from The Boss," says Culver, who recalls playing with a boss who demanded to be addressed as Mr. Thomas. "About the 30th time we played together, we were having beers after the round, and I made the mistake of calling him Bruce. When he corrected me—in front of a customer—I felt about four inches tall." Adds Culver: "It's probably good advice not to have too many beers."
Let The Boss decide if you'll be playing a match, the format of the game, and the size and nature of any bets. Don't take a mulligan off the first tee unless it's offered. You will be expected to know the rules. "Obey the rules typically followed by weekend golfers," says Macadam. "If you lose a ball but didn't hit a provisional, don't go back and replay. But recognize that this is not the correct procedure and concede the hole." Conceding putts? Inside the leather is a good guideline, but be more generous if The Boss is sending balls back to you from farther away—follow the leader. Most people in power got there by being competitive, and they'll expect you to be competitive, too. Play to win. "I've always tried to play my best," says Corrigan. "If I beat The Boss, great. I've had several associates, too, who have loved getting into my pocket for $10 or $15, but we've never overdone it. It's not about boss' or subordinate.' It's about golfers who enjoy competition." Above all: Win or lose with grace.
You had a good day, and you'd like to be invited back. Here's the key: Follow up. While e-mail might be the accepted means of communication in today's world, "a handwritten note will set you apart," says Corrigan. Don't make it a bland, pro forma note—without sounding obsequious, say something specific about the day that you particularly liked or appreciated.Again, just because you've had a round of golf together, don't assume you're now The Boss' new best friend. "It's most important to me that a subordinate doesn't use golf to prove he or she is in with The Boss," says Macadam. "This really turns me off more than anything." If colleagues know about the round and ask about it, "treat it as if it were no big deal," says Corrigan. "And don't discuss The Boss' performance if he or she had a bad round. If The Boss played well, say so. And please, spare your co-workers a hole-by-hole description of your own game." When The Boss starts to talk about his or her game, however, listen up. Or at least pretend to.