August 29, 2007

Golf and Money

Why does the stigma of golfers as business slackers persist?

In a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd raked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the coals for talking about her hook while the situation was deteriorating in Iraq. Simultaneously, corporate raider Carl Icahn said of CEOs who play golf: "These guys would rather play golf, slap each other on the back. I want a guy running a company who sits in his tub at night thinking about the challenges he faces. The guy who can't let it go. The focused guy."

Perhaps emboldened by so much blood in the water, deposed AIG chairman and tennis aficionado Hank Greenberg announced that he, too, despises golf, sneering, "A lot of people like to get away from their work. You have to wonder whether they like what they're doing." The coup de grâce in this unexpected onslaught was delivered when an anonymous portfolio manager blasted Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne for spending too much time playing golf while his firm was reporting dismal earnings and a pair of his firm's hedge funds were imploding.

Investors will note that this barrage of unoccasioned venom spilled forth in the month leading up to Wall Street's mid-summer swoon, when the Dow lost almost 5 percent of its value in a week. Use of this oracular device could stand investors in good stead the next time the market gets a bit frothy: Wait until people start teeing off on CEOs who play golf, and then short everything.

There is, and always has been, a communal lapse of sanity in this otherwise logical nation when it comes to golf (see Golf Digest's ranking of the golfers on Wall Street). Trading on a festering mythology that dates to the Great Depression -- now roughly 70 years behind us -- detractors refer to the sport as if it were some esoteric rite like cat worship or the midnight sacrifice of newborn albino pheasants to Huaxtuphal, god of mirth, as if playing 18 holes were some weird ritual practiced exclusively by furtive members of a secret society who carry divining rods and wear ornate headdresses and communicate through Esperanto hand signals and write in hieroglyphics, when in fact it is a sport closely associated with that dapper Keystone State septuagenarian who has been hawking antifreeze for decades. Moreover, it is a sport whose appeal is by no means confined to a single class: All of us know salesmen and bartenders and short-order cooks and cops who play golf. Some of us even are salesmen and bartenders and short-order cooks and cops who play the game.

Golfers in my town include a retired surveyor, a graphic designer, an auto-parts rep, a magazine editor, the owner of the local diner, and my postman. Does anyone ever suggest that the eatery's esteemed souvlaki has dipped in quality because the owner is spending too much time playing golf? Would anyone suggest that the margaritas at the local tavern have lost their bite because the bartender spends too much time working on his short game? Would anyone dream of complaining that a designer selected the wrong font size and an inappropriate typeface because he was spending too much time working on that hitch in his swing? That is, anyone in his right mind?

The golf-loathing public is divided into three broad groups: Nongolfers like Icahn who deride the sport as the Xanaduan domain of stogie-chomping plutocrats; occasional golfers who resent those who get to play more frequently, or more competently, or who play incompetently but get to do it on better courses than their critics; and journalists, who can never resist a chance for a cheap laugh. Even journalists who play golf will take a shot at fat-cat golfers, just as journalists who are boring will mock accountants; it's the sort of faux populist rabble-rousing-by-numbers the man in the street loves. Mind you, the man in the street doesn't actually want to see the rabble roused; if the rabble ever got roused, most men would get in off the street.

Clearly, there is a strange brand of cultural shorthand that comes into play whenever golf is discussed in the same breath as business or politics. I grew up in a working-class household where no one was allowed to mouth the words "Dwight Eisenhower" under pain of death. My father didn't mind that Eisenhower took his time confronting Joe McCarthy or that he allowed the Russkies to take the lead in the race to control space. What he couldn't stomach was Ike's passion for golf. In his view, just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, Eisenhower was golfing while America burned. But America wasn't burning. The Eisenhower Era, though perhaps not in our house, were years of unprecedented economic growth, when America grew into the most potent industrial colossus the world has ever known. Whatever was wrong with my family, Ike's golf had nothing to do with it.

Golf, in the view of its enemies, is a sport played by sybaritic industrialists, slothful oligarchs, pampered scions of the wealthy, and all-purpose enemies of the people. This archaic image thrives even though millions of Americans who know nothing about golf revere Tiger Woods, and despite the fact that tens of millions of Americans do know something about golf because they play it. Why then does this Daddy Warbucks imagery persist in the minds of people who ought to know better? Basically, it's because of a refusal to come to terms with the transformation of the American economy. Like it or not -- I like it -- this is not the same country that FDR presided over, and it is certainly not the same country that Jimmy Carter once helmed. A 25-year bull market will do that for you; Carter's was a paddleball society; ours is a golf-ball society.

Yet, even though the American economy has changed dramatically, our cultural mythology remains frozen in time. It's as if we were all still listening to Peter, Paul & Mary records or wearing Keds. The Dudley Do-Rights who blast golf as the domain of cognac-sipping layabouts are like tourists who bellyache about English food without realizing that England has undergone an epicurean revolution in the past 15 years. True, there was a time in our history when only the rich could afford golf, when most people were members of the urban proletariat. But that time is long gone.

One reason Bill Clinton, a man who has never made any secret of his passion for golf, was so successful was because he realized that most Americans worked in offices and lived in the suburbs—where a lot of them played golf. Their fathers might have been ditch diggers and blast-furnace operators, but they weren't. Nevertheless, the anti-golf mythology that took root when merely playing the sport seemed to be a rebuke to the working class has persisted, even though it is the mythology of a bygone era. This is not your father's society. And it is certainly not your grandfather's. If it were, we'd all still be feasting on pressed ham and smoking two packs of coffin nails a day.

Criticism of golf-loving business types is rooted in the notion that certain athletic activities are appropriate for executives, but others are not. Tennis, which is much more likely to lead to broken bones and heart attacks, gets the cultural and stylistic nod, but golf is taboo -- even though before Jimmy Connors, tennis was viewed as a sport for sissies. Participating in marathons, another shortcut to an early coronary, is deemed a splendid activity, ostensibly because it is character-building and vaguely egalitarian. Mountain climbing, zany car races through the Sahara and even yachting, which used to have a devastatingly tony image, are deemed perfectly commendable leisure activities, perhaps because all that virile leeing to port evokes thrilling memories of seafaring legends like JFK and Commodore Barry and Captain Blood. But golf is simply out of the question. Golf is just too ... clubby.

No other sport generates this level of rehearsed antipathy. Yet even though almost no one ever dies while playing it, the public seems to prefer executives who engage in more dangerous pastimes. Running marathons can be spectacularly risky for middle-age men, as is rock-climbing, white-water-rafting or riding a motorcycle. Yet because of the contrived image Malcolm Forbes manufactured of the brash capitalist astride his Harley, CEOs who ride choppers -- and mostly look ridiculous doing so -- are admired, but those who ride in golf carts are scorned. Seemingly, shareholders would prefer that executives perish while doing some-thing lethal rather than relax while doing something that looks like it might be fun. Call me a throwback, but it's hard for me to see how death is ever good for business.

The rules regarding suitable leisure activities for executives place a strong emphasis upon using one's free time profitably. If you are sitting at home watching Wolf Blitzer pose an infinite series of inane questions to CNN's house chuckleheads regarding the deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East, this is considered a valuable use of your time, even though affairs have been in a deplorable state in the Middle East since Hammurabi was devising his code. If you are paging through yet another daft, connect-the-dots book about The Third Way or The Five People You Meet in Heaven or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or The 10 Ex-Employees You Would Least Want To Meet in Hell, this is considered a valuable use of your time, even though you can barely stay awake while doing so. If you are learning to cook or to garden, or if you are serving on the advisory board of a philanthropic organization whose values you don't share and whose members you despise, this is considered a valuable use of your time. But if you spend your free time -- your free time -- doing something that you actually enjoy, something that you think you've earned the right to enjoy, then ipso facto you have swindled your shareholders, shortchanged your employees, abandoned your family and betrayed the Republic. Nobody ever complains if you waste your time in private, in the privacy of your home. Just don't do it in public. Particularly if two of your company's hedge funds are going belly up that afternoon.

God forbid that anyone should come out and say, "Yes, I enjoy golf. If I could, I'd play every day. So would you, if you weren't a jerk."

One of the many things that people like Carl Icahn do not understand about golf or, for that matter, life is that nobody except people like Carl Icahn wants to work 24 hours a day. And a lot of people don't like being told what to do. Fred Thompson, the jowly ex-senator who is running for president, recently made headlines when he appeared in an Internet video, discussing health care, poking fun at seditious filmmaker Michael Moore, while smoking a cigar. The idea of these two garrulous fatsos debating health care is funny enough; by the time that argument is settled, both of them will be working on their fifth angioplasty. But the one thing that was truly admirable about Thompson's performance was that he wasn't afraid to smoke a stogie on camera in an era when smoking is deemed anathema by the arbiters of good taste. I like cigars, he seemed to be saying. Cigars make me happy. If you don't approve of a cigar-smoking president, don't vote for me. But don't hold your breath waiting for me to act guilty about it.

In other words, don't be like Mike. Be like Ike.