The Executive game

Take a trip to almost any golf course late on a Friday afternoon and observe the species in its natural habitat: The executive golfer. He can quote his company’s mission statement and the script of “Caddyshack” with the certainty of a six-inch putt.

For most of these executive types the old adage that a bad day on the golf course is better than a good day at the office definitely applies. But they also agree that 18 holes with the client, associate, partner or friend can be like playing in a petri dish.

“You can learn a lot about a person in those four hours on a golf course,” says Bob Lee, president and CEO of Albany Bank & Trust. “You’re going to see how they handle themselves in situations where they succeed and fail.”

Hard to keep character a secret when you’re hooking daisy cutters into the woods, missing three-foot putts, winning or losing the $2 nassau. Because of that unedited dose of sports reality, the golf course may be the best place to conduct naked business. No office, no desk, no boardroom, no tie. Pretty much nothing but grass and sweet oxygen between you and the other guy; no way to hide your self-conscious swing, your reaction, your habits.

“The golf course is a great environment for honest, open business,” says Sue Parr, 14 handicap, new president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of people feel they can talk freely out in the open air. People are a little more free flowing.”

And rather than a good walk spoiled, to these businessmen golf can be a lucrative joy ride. “Where else can you take someone aside for four hours to talk business? I did exactly that recently with a developer down in Savannah,” says Phil Jacobs, BellSouth’s president of Planned Community Services, who shoots in the 80s.

Where the schmooze takes place is key. Shooting in the low 70s, for example, might be impressive even at the scrappiest of dog patches, but an 88 at, say, East Lake or The Legends at Chateau Elan, will probably leave a greater impression on the client. In other words, it isn’t the length of the tee, it’s where the ball touches down that counts most.

“The more exclusive it is, the better they like it,” says Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall County Chamber of Commerce, who in November was working on tee times for some of her international corporate clientele at The Legends or East Lake or, God willing, Augusta National. “These are people who can play anywhere in the world.”

One of Dunlap’s former chamber board chairs, Dick Valentine, knows the difference between wining, dining and duffing. The CEO of Gainesville’s branch of United Community Bank, Inc., Valentine plays with his regular crowd at Chestatee Golf Club, a beautiful semiprivate course in a Dawson County residential community. But if he’s courting big-time business, he’s on the phone with Hawks Ridge Golf Club or Peachtree Golf Club, two private mega-courses in the Atlanta area, ranked among the best in the country.

“I’ve closed some deals on the golf course, and it always helps if you have connections to places like Peachtree or Hawks Ridge,” says Valentine, who plays to a 6 handicap. “If I had a choice, I like to play somewhere close, in which case The Legends is an excellent golf course, something a client or a buddy would really appreciate.”

Ultimately, though, for Valentine and others, even the most hard-charging executives, it’s about the game, and where you’re most comfortable on a Friday afternoon with business associates and friends, when the only thing at stake is five bucks or a drink afterward in the clubhouse. Golf is a game of habits, good and bad, and for most golfing executives around the state, playing a relaxed, informal weekend round on the home course is a habit they don’t want to break.

Leagues Of Their Own

Blake Voltz spends his temperate Saturday mornings at Green Island Country Club with a group of 12 to 20 pals, a few fellow Aflac execs and other guys, most of them business professionals. Voltz, who was playing every Saturday and a few evenings during the week, became a scratch golfer. Three young sons later the 36-year-old VP of client services is carrying a more human handicap in the 5 range. His group is serious. None of them plays higher than an 8 handicap, and one of them actually keeps statistics for the group. “You know, who’s making the most birdies, who has lowest average score and so on. It gets pretty competitive,” Voltz says. “He obviously has too much time on his hands and needs more to do at work.”

Green Island, former home of the PGA Southern Open, is a favorite among the Columbus executive set. So is the older Columbus Country Club. A lot of Voltz’s buddies play there. In 1992 a group of Voltz’s friends from both clubs started the Spackler Cup Tournament, an informal Ryder Cup-like team competition honoring the bizarro greenskeeper played by Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.” The image of middle-aged button-downed executives wearing Bermuda shorts and spouting quotes from “Caddyshack” between puffs of a cigar is both superfluous and supernatural.

“Columbus is always the favorite going into the tournament,” Voltz explains. “They have a lot of former college golfers and amateur champions. We’re always trying to figure out ways to beat them, but so far they’ve won eight times.”

One of the early Spackler Cup competitors, Jim McKay, has moved onto greener pastures as Phil Mickelson’s caddie. “Bill Murray is aware of us through Jim,” Voltz says. “So we hope to bring him down as a guest one day, maybe for our 15th tournament.”

Kathy Gant, another Aflac VP (in administration best practices/risk management), has been playing golf for about eight years thanks to the company golf league. Aflac pays about half the fee for its employees, who compete in a Monday night 9-hole league from April through August at Bull Creek Golf Course, a top-rated public course in Columbus.

“We talk a little business, but mainly get to know our co-workers in a casual setting,” says Gant, a lefty who asked that her handicap not be printed. The important thing is, she hits the ball short and straight, which complements her teammate, Mark Googe, a 6-handicap who hits long and wild. “If he hits it in the woods, I’m always in the fairway.”

When Gant took up the game in 1998, she was one of five or six women in the Aflac league. Now, she says, there are 25 to 30. Early on, Gant was self conscious, wondering what some of the higher-up execs and co-workers would think of her novice swing. “I was worried that I’d look like a fool, then I realized that some of those people don’t play any better than I do.”

In Macon, there’s a group of mostly retired executives and professionals who play in one of the state’s most exclusive golf establishments. Membership in the United States Closed Golf Association opens up only when someone dies, says Buck Melton, partner in the Sell & Melton law firm, a former Macon mayor and one-time gubernatorial candidate.

Melton, who is 82 and believes he’s the oldest member of the USCGA, still practices law, but laments that he no longer can shoot his age. “Well, I had a bad year,” he says. “Heart surgery kept me off the links for six months.”

When he’s on his game, Melton plays at Idle Hour Golf & Country Club, another one of Georgia’s top private courses and therefore a favorite among Macon’s golf-minded business professionals.

“It isn’t very long, but if you don’t hit the greens you’re gonna have trouble,” says Albert “Bubba” Edge, 6 handicap, a commercial realtor with the Macon firm of Murphey, Taylor & Ellis. “The strength of the course is the greens. They’re undulating, very small and fast. [Senior pro and former Georgia amateur champ] Allen Doyle called it the hardest 6,500 yards in the world.”

Edge gets together at Idle Hour on the weekend with a group of friends that ranges in number from four to 20. Naturally, there is plenty of wagering, but not a lot of dough changing hands. “Most of the time the more money someone has, the lower the bet,” Edge says. “We gamble enough to make it interesting. I’d rather win five bucks and laugh about it than be out there having an awful time over a hundred bucks.”

Main Courses

There is a big difference between an executive’s favorite golf course and an “executive golf course.” The former tends to be a private or semi-private course with all of the amenities, like a friendly, attentive staff in the clubhouse, a lot of “yes sir” and “no ma’am,” even the occasional caddie. An “executive course,” by definition, refers to shorter, usually par-3 courses with few frills. Make no mistake, there are some fine and often challenging “executive courses,” such as the Charles Yates course in Atlanta, across the street from a favored executive course (sans quotes), East Lake.

“Every chance I get, I’m at East Lake,” says BellSouth’s Jacobs, recalling a recent outing there with Holder Construction CEO Tommy Holder. “He’s come on really strong the last few years. I accused him of spending a lot of money on lessons.”

Jacobs has played plenty of golf with Atlanta’s top executive swingers and notes that the old rule of thumb generally holds true: You can tell a lot about a person and his character by their golf course persona.

“David Ratcliffe [Southern Company CEO] is very steady and consistent, a reflection of his personality, which is even-keeled, reliable,” Jacobs says. “Then there’s Pete McTier [president of the Woodruff Foundation]. He’s a class guy, a gentleman to play golf with, very low key. Me? I’d describe my game as unpredictable. But I told my wife three years ago that if the first number on my score is ?8,’ I’m not gonna complain.”

That’s the other thing about executive golfers ? most golfers, really. Everyone else’s game is better, or their own game just isn’t what it used to be, or could be. Is it ever what it could be? “I’m just a hacker,” says Albany banker Bob Lee, a lefthander with a handicap of 5. Most weekend golfers would give their Pings for a 5.

Lee belongs to two golf clubs in Albany, Stonebridge and Doublegate Country Club. “Doublegate is the old, traditional Southern course,” he says. “Rather long, a lot of doglegs, the greens are open in front so for the most part you can run the ball on them. Stonebridge is a little different. It has some holes that I’d call open, not a lot of trees or hazards, a links type course. I tend to score better at Stonebridge. You have to have more shots in your bag to play at Doublegate.”

Doublegate plays about 7,300 yards from the back tees, but 6,900 is about as far as the 53-year-old Lee wants to go. “I’ve played from the back tees before,” he says. “It becomes work at that point, not pleasure.”

It’s the bells and whistles, the service really, that has hooked Don Moore on The Club at Savannah Harbor. “It isn’t the course, necessarily, though it’s just beautiful,” says Moore, who runs Savannah construction firm D.L. Moore Inc. “It’s the people there. I’ve never been any place where I felt more welcome.”

Troon Golf manages the Club, home for the PGA Champions Tour Legends of Golf Tournament. Troon, says Moore, a 12 handicap, “has a unique culture and I don’t know how they do it, but everyone in that clubhouse seems to know when you drive in that parking lot and they treat you like they haven’t seen you for years. The course plays differently at different times of the year, and depending on which tees you play. Also, when you get closer to the Legends tournament, the course really does change. The fairways narrow and then my 12 handicap goes to 16.”

The 74s he’s shot at Savannah Harbor stand out as personal golf highlights for Moore, but eclipsing that was the round he played at Augusta National. “You stand on the first tee and if your knees don’t knock you’re not human. So much history there,” says Moore, who shot in the 80s and chipped in on No. 16 for a birdie. “Must have had my eyes closed.”

Jacobs can relate to the knocking knees at Augusta. “It’s intimidating, and I was absolutely in awe of the place,” he says. “That’s as nervous as I’ve ever been on a golf course. The last thing you want to do is hit a divot.”

Jacobs is a member at Atlanta’s Cherokee Town & Country Club, which has two courses designed by Tom Fazio. That’s where he plays with a group of eight or 10 guys, IBM execs, business owners and the like, Cherokee regulars. “We get pretty competitive, try to get into each other’s heads. The truth is, I always like to have a little wager going, a $2 nassau or something,” Jacobs says. “There’s something about the competition, I don’t know, that makes it really fun. Needling the other guys, or being humble in victory. There have been times when I’ve paid two bucks to a guy and that hurt more than paying my monthly mortgage.”

So, Jacobs has won and lost his share of $2 holes, and hammered out business deals on the back nine. But the most lucrative wager and deal in Atlanta executive golf history took place on day in the early 1950s. It’s one of Jacobs’ favorite stories.

Coca-Cola magnate Bob Woodruff played a round of golf at Augusta National with his pal, President Dwight Eisenhower, who told Woodruff he was looking for a site in Washington for the federal agency that would become the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Woodruff suggested it be located in Atlanta, near Emory University. The president balked, saying all the other federal agencies were in D.C. So Woodruff countered that he would provide the site if Eisenhower put the CDC in Atlanta.

“The rumor is, Woodruff said that if he could beat Ike in a round of golf that day in Augusta, the CDC would come to Atlanta,” says Jacobs, who is on the board of the CDC Foundation. “Now that’s a prime example of a golf bet that had a huge payoff for Atlanta and Georgia.”

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