Business Lessons Learned from Playing Golf

It’s March – finally.  The Winter darkness has noticeably given way to longer hours of daylight.  The cold and the snows are abating.  The crocuses and early spring flowers are in bloom.  It’s a pleasure to waken to the birds chirping.  And a person can feel that Spring is just around the corner.

That is, except in Upstate New York, where March doesn’t come until May (especially this year).

Winter StormAnd while my wife is  thinking of “Spring Cleaning”, I am thinking of Fishing and Golf.

Germany is a very peculiar place in many regards.  But probably the most striking peculiarity is their absolute insistence on ordnung muss sein (roughly translated to “there must be order”).  In Germany, there is a process and a procedure for everything – and everything has a place and you better be certain to ensure it is in that place at all times.

For instance; by law, you need a license to fish in Germany.  This would not be so unusual, as requiring a fishing license to fish is commonplace in many parts of the world.  Except, in Germany, you need to know – and be able to identify –

Winter Storm-2each and every species of the fish that you might possibly catch in German waters and the season for catching them.  You must be able to identify whether the fish is healthy and, if not, what disease it might be carrying.  You must be able to demonstrate the proper way to clean and prepare your catch.  There is a written and practical test involved and you must pass to earn your license.  Click here for a humorous first-person account.

If you are caught fishing without a license, it’s a crime and they will put you in jail.  The crime is “stealing”, and it goes back to Medieval times when the Baron who owned the land also owned all the living creatures on the land and in the water.  Rest assured, you will find yourself on the Group-W Bench with the litterbugs and other menaces to society if you are caught fishing without a license.

Same with Golf – by law, you need a golf license (called a “platzreife”) to play almost any of the courses in Germany (there are a few “open” courses that do not require a license).  Similar to the Fishing License, the Golf License requires the student to memorize the rules of golf and be taught the fundamentals of the game.  Of course, there will be a written test and a practical exam.

Caddyshack TributeAmazingly, I have asked a few “licensed” Germans what their handicaps were; thinking they must be pretty good to have earned a License to golf.

So you can imagine my shock – and forgive my snicker – when they tell me their handicap is 30, 40, even 50 (52 is the upper limit).  I can’t imagine how a person can earn a handicap of 50 – I can probably throw the ball around the course and not end with a 50 over par.

I guess there will always be a difference between “book smarts” and “street smarts”.

I am sure you can imagine the frustration I felt knowing that I have to work to earn a license for a sport I have been playing (with varying degrees of capability) for 30-plus years.  Then I remembered that some years ago I got an offer to become a member of the United States Golfing Association (USGA).  For $25, I got the “Membership Card”, a Rule Book, and some golf goodies (such as a sleeve of balls, a “US Open” hat, a clubhead cover, etc…).  I never really paid much attention to it (I occasionally read the rule book while sitting in the “library”), but it certainly came in handy in Germany – where it passes as a “golf license”.  YAY!

With that success, I recently bought USGA Memberships for both my sons as well.

So it’s March, Spring is in the air, and I am dragging my golf-clubs out of the garage for a good looking over.  I take a look at the inventory of equipment – do I need balls, gloves, or tees?  Geeze, I do hope there is something I discover that I need!  After all; golf season doesn’t really begin until you have bought a new “golf thing”.  As I start cleaning them, I can’t help but dreamily thinking about the past golf outings I have had – the friends and family, the experiences, and the lessons learned.

Although I am sure everyone knows what golf is, but might have never played; golf is a slow-paced and methodical, yet highly emotional game.  It is also a very cerebral and analytical game.  As golfing great Bobby Jones once said, “Golf is a game played on a 5-inch course; the distance between your ears.”

But there are many lessons to be learned from golf as it comes to business, Operational Excellence, and life in general.  Here are some – please feel free to share others you might be willing to add.

  • Surround yourself with talented players with positive attitudes.  Although the game is played at an individual level, you are not alone – there are usually three others with you, and they do influence your game.  For instance, I find that when I am with players of lesser capability than me, my game gets sloppy; but when I am with players better than me, my game ratchets-up.  Some of the very best players with whom I have ever played a round of golf were also some of the most helpful, yet humble – occasionally giving pointers and advice as the day went.  Of course, you have to be willing to take advice (check your ego), and the person giving the advice needs to pick their opportunities (otherwise, they become unwelcome).  And for the more serious golfer, a great trainer and caddy can make all the difference in the world.In Operational Excellence, the difference between success and failure are the people who are on the team – the “right people on the bus, sitting in the right seats” – knowing when (and how) to lead and knowing when to follow (and knowing when to be each).  It’s critically important to have positive people with a variety of backgrounds and expertise, a can-do winning attitude, and a positive outlook.  And it’s also as important to purge, with extreme prejudice, those who are negative, selfish, megalomaniacs who ooze toxicity and poisons.
  • Be prepared for the challenges.  When I was back in the States (Upstate New York), I used to play in the Binghamton Club’s golf league.  Our normal course was the Links at Hiawatha, but we would also play at En-Joie (a course on the PGA Tour where the BC Open used to be played and now where the Dick’s Open, a stop on the Champions Tour, is played).  My normal golf game consists of avoiding the fairways at all cost, preferring to play out of trouble.  My partner would always marvel at how well I played out of the trouble; failing to understand that the only reason I excelled at playing out of trouble was because I had a lot of practice – being so often in it.In Operational Excellence, you have to always prepare for the unexpected.  You and your team being always positive and continually honing your skills, you will look at challenges as Opportunities to Excel (OTE’s) and naturally rise to the occasion – even thrive in the face of adversity.  It’s not about being on a “burning platform”, but about “keeping calm and carrying on”.
  • Keep it Simple.  In golf, nothing good ever happened as a result of overthinking or complexity.  It is, in fact, a death-sentence.  One of the best golf tips I ever received was to play each and every hole like it was a par-5; keeping in mind that, if it took you 5 strokes on every hole, you would shoot an 90 (a pretty respectable score).  Of course, being a guy, I too often get to the tee-box and my “inner machismo” takes over and I think I can do it in less – almost always costing me more.When it comes to business systems and their operations, more often than not, less is more.  I am not sure why we work so hard at eliminating all the variants, then spend even more time accommodating the exceptions or the “old way”.  It’s amazing how many times I have seen a company purchase a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and then spend an incredible amount of resources and money re-engineering it so it works like the old one.  As Albert Einstein famously said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent.  It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”
  • PGA PoseHurry up, then take your time.  At first read, even at second read, this might be confusing.  But in golf, slow play is not tolerated.  It’s important to get to your ball quickly – walking with purpose, but not getting into stride.  Once to your ball, though, it’s time to assess where you are, where you need to be, and how you are going to get there.  It’s time to consider (not overthink) the plan and mentally prepare (but not psyche yourself out) for the execution.  Even the swing should be flowing and even, not hasty and erratic.  I often use the mantra; “tube-a” (backswing) “toothpaste” (swing) to set a cadence – making sure to always end in the PGA pose.In business, it’s important to get to the action quickly – in Continuous Improvement, we talk about doing a “Gemba Walk”.  Getting there quickly gives the advantage – but once there, make sure to observe with all of your senses in a deliberate and critical manner.  In my daily routine, I efficiently perform menial tasks like organizing my workspace, scheduling my time, and plowing through my eMails – but I slow it way down when it comes to things that really matter like preparing my talks, developing content, and writing articles (which is why they are rarely on-time, right Editor?).
  • Keep your head down.  If you have ever played golf, you have certainly heard this phrase.  And you will also know that nothing good happens if you don’t follow this advice – which is heard easier than learned.  The reason for this is simple; the head keeps the body aligned to the ball even as the rest of you is in full motion.  Failure to follow this advice will result in shots which are embarrassing.Maintaining alignment of your business activities to your business strategies is the difference between success, and varying degrees of less success (including complete failure).  Keeping your head down in Operational Excellence requires that you stay true to pursuing your strategy even when all of the activities around you will try to distract you and pull you off your pursuit.
  • Loosen your grip.  In golf, if you and your swing look graceful, you usually strike the ball better (on average) more often than not.  Similar to keeping your head down, it is also important to not have a strong grip on your club when you swing.  When you have too strong a grip, you become stiff and rigid – and you lose flexibility and flow.  Instead of a smooth and elegant swing, a strong grip will choke-off the flow and make your swing look more violent – like you are chopping wood.You also have to loosen your grip during the pursuit of Operational Excellence.  If you have hired good people, you have properly outfitted them, and they are clear on what the strategy is and the tactics to be deployed are, then there is no need to micro-manage them – let them run.  Be there for support, but stay out of their way.
  • When things start falling apart, go back to the fundamentals.  If you golf more frequently, you have experienced days that are better than others, and you have also experienced days which are much worse than others.  The natural instinct for someone who is in trouble in golf (and most other stressful situations) is to press harder.  For instance; if you have a poor tee-shot, the instinct is to take a more powerful club and try to power the ball to make-up the difference.  And although this instinct is natural, it is also very wrong.  In all likelihood, you are going to end-up in the golf equivalent of a “death-spiral”.  When you feel yourself in the “death spiral” (and you will definitely know when that is), it’s time to get back to basics – slow your game down, use more conservative clubs and tactics, have your developed mind take over from your primal instincts.In business, if you find that you are digging yourself into a hole, the first thing you need to do is to stop digging.  The natural reaction will be to act more frantically – perhaps calling meetings and instilling a sense of urgency in those around you.   What you should really be doing is slowing down and stepping back – observe and assess the situation and then re-engage.
  • The plan versus the reality.  As I approach the start of the hole, I spend some time preparing and planning (as you should).  I look at the yardage card, check the wind direction and speed, see what the condition of the fairway might be, make sure my ball is clean.  As I stand in the tee-box, I am visualizing how the hole will play-out; “I will hit my driver with a slight fade leaving me 150 yards, I will take my 7-Iron and hit into the green, and two-putt for par – easy peasy”.  But we all know that the reality will be far different than the plan.When conducting your Operational Excellence program, the act of planning is more important than the plan itself.  As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth”.  The chances of you executing to completion “Rev-1” of your plan is zero – so prepare and condition yourself accordingly.  If you are inflexible in the execution of your plan, you will fail.  You need to continually assess and adjust as you work towards the achievement of your strategies.
  • Drive for Show, Putt for Dough.  Everyone loves to crush it off the tee, and when it works, it’s spectacular and really makes you feel good.  My son, Jonathan, is tall and thin – and he can really wrap his body around when he swings – it’s a beautiful sight (not like my old, somewhat brittle, self).  He can reliably pound-out a 250 yard drive (usually straight down the middle).  Unfortunately, his putts also go about 250 yards.  So even though he gets on the green in regulation, his four-putts kill his game.Far too many Operational Excellence programs follow the same pattern.   They are launched with great fanfare and aspiration, but then lose focus and momentum – and the results are too often laughable rather than laudable.  The path to success is a long and winding one filled with obstacles, traps, and other hazards.  Perseverance and making sure to always keep your eyes on the prize will lead you to achieving your desired outcome.
  • A Winning Attitude and the Pursuit of Excellence.  People have an advantage over all other forms of life on Earth – and that advantage is in our ability to think and to reason.  On the golf course, this manifests itself in the form of assessing where we need to be, where we are now, and how we are going to get to where we need to be.  When faced with adversity, we evaluate and adjust – we don’t just give-up or settle for mediocrity.Successful people always give it their best and use this ability aggressively and in a positive way to have control over their future and results.  It’s imperative that we bring this level of intensity, balanced with cerebral intent – this winning attitude – to all of our business efforts.  In fact, we should bring it to all of our life’s efforts, always.  The constant state of readiness and boundless capacity to improve the quality of what we have to offer – that’s excellence.
  • Never stop learning.   In golf, you never know everything there is to know – every technique, every circumstance, every piece of equipment and even ourselves.  What’s more, it is all ever-changing and if you cease honing your skills, others will consistently outplay you.  After all, improvement will only happen when we challenge ourselves physically and mentally.  The most successful golfers never stop training and learning to refine their abilities – this applies even to hacks like me.As in golf, success in business requires constant learning.  Trying and refining different strategies and techniques – and reaching beyond what we know – are the only ways to discover what might work better.  Studying past strategies and attempts (whether the outcomes were positive or not) help lead to future successful ones.  The people who claim (or demonstrate by their actions) to know it all are the ones who have stopped learning – and, thus, stopped improving.  To be consistently successful, you need to always continue to learn from your experiences and from those around you – and relentlessly pursue in yourself, Operational Excellence.

Golf is a game you can NEVER win, only play.  You can never win a game of golf – it’s impossible.  In every other sport, your winning or losing greatly depends on your opponent’s action-reaction to your direct play.  The only thing you can ever do in golf is to play better than your opponent (or, conversely, they play worse than you).  And to improve the odds of this requires training and practice.

And Operational Excellence is nothing you can achieve, only pursue.

FogTo be as good as you’re going to be – to be as good as you can be – you have to continually improve your own personal skills by training and practicing.  And while this is no guarantee that you are going to be able to overcome the challenges and opportunities (opponents) you face, it will increase your odds.

Of course, you will have moments of pure elation when it all comes together – mind, body, soul, equipment, and environment – only to have it evaporate back into the mist like your ball on the opening tee-shot on foggy fall day.

But at that very moment, you get to feel the awesomeness of what can be – the potential.

And it is that moment that will be just enough to fan the flame and keep hot your desire to play.

Special Tribute:  Harold Ramis and Caddyshack

Happy GilmoreTin Cup

The sport of golf has been a subject of movies over the ages – some were serious, but most of them humorous.

The earliest movie I can remember (although I am not old enough to have been born when it was made) that highlighted the sport of golf was one staring the Three Stooges (Larry, Moe, and Curly) called the “Three Little Bears”.

It was a short, but hysterical film which illuminated all that is crazy about the sport of golf.

In more modern times, there has been the hockey-player turned golfer, side-splitting funny, “Happy Gilmore” starring Adam Sandler.  And the romantic comedy “Tin Cup” starring; Kevin CostnerRene RussoCheech Marin, and Don Johnson.

There was also “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (starring Will Smith and Matt Damon and directed by Robert Redford) which, in my opinion, is the best movie ever produced showing the essence of the game of golf.

But the one movie that is the “signature film for golf” – probably of all time – is “Caddyshack”, with a star-studded cast including; Bill MurrayChevy ChaseRodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight.  I don’t know any golfers who can’t recite entire scenes.  It was written and directed by the comic-genius, Harold Ramis.


In addition to Caddyshack, Ramis was involved in most of the great comedic films of the last thirty years including; “Stripes” (where he also starred), “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, “Ghostbusters” (where he also starred) and “Groundhog Day”.

Harold Ramis passed away recently – and the laughter in the world will be markedly diminished.

By Joseph F Paris Jr

Photo of XONITEK's Joseph ParisParis is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence. 

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 38,000 members.

Connect with him on LinkedIn

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