Microsoft's Former CEO Is Crazy For Golf

By Peter Finch Illustrations by John Ritter
September 29, 2014

The job Steve Ballmer says he loved best was being a caddie, which is saying something when you consider that Ballmer—new owner of the NBA's L.A. Clippers franchise—used to hold one of the world's most powerful corporate jobs. "You learn how to handle people as a caddie," says the former Microsoft chief executive. "You learn how to manage customer expectations, to deal with difficult bosses. You get yelled at."

Ballmer, 58, has loved golf since his early teens, when he attended a free, weeklong introduction to the game for Detroit-area kids. Throughout his career at Microsoft, which he joined as employee No. 30 in 1980, he usually managed to get in a couple of rounds a month. But lately his passion for golf has reached new heights. He has played more than 50 rounds this year, most of them since his February retirement. Determined to drop his handicap into single digits—he currently has an 11.3 Index—Ballmer attended a three-day Bob May golf school in Las Vegas and travels with a copy of his favorite instruction book, Swing the Handle—Not the Clubhead, by Eddie Merrins.

His $2 billion purchase of the Clippers came after unsuccessful attempts to buy teams in Seattle and Sacramento. He sees the acquisition as serving three purposes: "It's a community service, it's fun, and it's a business—which is a good thing for me to keep my brain working." He doesn't imagine owning the team will get in the way of his golf game. It certainly won't put much of a dent in his savings. He has a net worth of $21.3 billion, according to Forbes.

Ballmer's ebullient, unrestrained personality is legendary in the tech industry. You can see for yourself on YouTube, where "Steve Ballmer going crazy," recorded at a Microsoft conference, has clocked more than 6 million views. He brings some of that same energy to the golf course, as I saw this summer when we played 18 holes at the Honors Course in Tennessee. "Come on baby, light my fire!" he'll yell as a chip rolls close. After a crisp iron shot: "Boom! I can't hit it any better!"

It's a long way from the lock-jawed reserve that's expected behavior at many of golf's most exclusive clubs, but he seems to take pleasure in being a little different. With a laugh, he describes being shushed at one top Northeastern club when someone spotted a club officer within earshot. At Augusta National, he says, a caddie recognized him from an earlier visit and asked if he was going to "get excited" on the course like last time.

For all his enthusiasm, Ballmer is a more-than-respectful guest. "Is it OK I'm wearing shorts?" he asks an assistant pro at the Honors Course when he notices I'm wearing long pants. (His shorts were fine.) "Can I look at my phone?" he asks a caddie at the end of our round. (Not a problem.)

He's also a determined competitor. Pulling on his bright blue "lucky glove"—he'd worn it during a good round a few days earlier—Ballmer starts his round with a flurry of pars. "You don't think I'm feeling a lot of pressure, playing with Golf Digest?" he says. "I've got to focus!" Though he wobbles a little down the stretch, he wins our match, netting $6.25.

Afterward, we discuss the future of golf. Would he consider sponsoring grow-the-game initiatives or youth caddie programs? Ballmer says he hasn't given it much thought, but there's no doubt the subject piques his interest. "How are people doing this now?" he wonders. "Maybe it takes a whole new approach." You can see the wheels turning. Adds Ballmer: "This is a good thing to put in the queue for me in my retirement."



Steve Ballmer's favorite course (so far)

He has been to most of the world's top golf destinations—and will get to the rest eventually. Which course does Steve Ballmer like most? That's the Hotchkin Course at Woodhall Spa in England, famous for its beautiful and treacherous bunkers and ranked No. 88 in the world by Golf Digest.

"I'd never heard of it," he says. "You stay in a country inn down at the end of a long road. We went off at 4 in the afternoon, the last round in a weeklong trip. It's just a cool, old place."