Never mind resumes and work experience. One hiring decision John McConnell made came down to a round of golf. The technology executive was on the links with a potential sales representative who “mysteriously found” his ball after it appeared to be lost. The ball, McConnell soon noticed, was a completely different brand.He passed on that candidate.

“You learn a lot about people on the golf course,” McConnell said. “They show their true identity.”

For that reason, golf has become as integral to business as the boardroom. On the course, executives cozy up to customers, and junior employees build paths to the corner office.

It’s been that way for years. But as golf has become less the domain of white men and attracted women and minorities, the sport has grown in importance.

While a good golf swing is by no means a requirement of business, it can speed employees’ advancement in careers such as sales, finance and professional services.

“It is the best way to gain trust and likability,” said Hilary Bruggen, a Washington consultant who advises on the role of golf in business. “It removes hierarchies and cultural and social differences.”

Four hours on the golf course is like a long date. People can have lengthy conversations about work and life in a serene setting. They get to know each other, build relationships — or tear them apart.

Raleigh lawyer Kieran Shanahan walked the golf course once with a client considering a business venture with another player. A few holes into the outing and the client was certain that that possibility was out of the question.

“My guy thought he was wound too tight,” Shanahan said. “He was a club thrower.”

While the man was unlikely to let loose a five iron in the office, his frustration said something about the way he might act under pressure.
Golf in some ways is a microcosm of the business environment, defined by intense euphoria and overwhelming frustration. It tests the mettle and reveals the personalities of participants.

Golfers who don’t call penalties on themselves, as rules require, could be signaling their dishonesty. Those who don’t follow the standards of etiquette might be showing a lack of respect.

“You’re able to observe a person’s character as they play,” said Duane Long, chairman of Longistics, a Raleigh-based transportation and warehousing company, who has played the game for 25 years. “How do they react when they hit a bad shot? How competitive are they?”

Making those kinds of discoveries is more essential than getting business done on the links, say those who play regularly. Rarely are deals inked between holes, but the experience can lay the groundwork for partnerships.
Similar bonds can be forged during a long lunch or a night at the symphony. Business people who don’t golf have plenty of ways to woo clients and win promotions.

Still, the ability to golf can give an edge. It can provide a more personal connection to a customer who enjoys the sport and distinguish someone from a rival. Bruggen, the consultant, said she once landed a sought-after assignment in Amsterdam after she golfed with senior executives at the company.

“It’s not a necessity, but it’s something that you should do because it’s fun, and it makes you feel part of the group,” said Sheila Ogle, chief executive of MRPP, a media planning and placement firm in Cary, who took up the sport about six years ago. “You can join in the conversation.”

And make long-term connections.

Susan Cotter and a client still talk about a golf game they played four years ago. On one hole, Cotter’s client hit his way right into a sand trap. For the uninitiated, playing in the sand is not a way to have fun in golf. It’s dreaded.

Eager to escape his predicament, the client lined up over the ball and took a swing. It jumped out of the sand, took a hop and rolled into the hole.
“It was an incredible shot,” Cotter, vice president of the healthcare division of Active Data Services in Morrisville, recalled recently. “He’s never going to have that experience with anybody else.”

It’s an advantage that colleges are recognizing as they prepare students for the work force. With support from the Professional Golfers Association of America, 54 schools, including N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, Campbell University and Elizabeth City State University, have implemented “Golf: For Business and Life.”

In it, PGA members teach juniors, seniors and graduate students the game and suggest ways they can use golf as a business tool. About 27.3 million people played golf in 2004, up from 22.6 million a decade earlier, suggesting that it could be a handy skill.

McConnell enjoys the game so much that he bought a golf course. In 2003, he purchased the Raleigh Country Club out of bankruptcy.

He appreciates the sport for more than the exercise and camaraderie it brings. On the golf course, McConnell also is free to think.

During a round a few months back, he had an epiphany about A4 Health Systems, the medical software company he ran in Cary.

McConnell decided he didn’t want to sell stock to the public as A4 had planned. Instead, he agreed in January to sell the business for $272 million to Allscripts, a rival based outside Chicago.

“I think that business people should spend more time playing golf,” McConnell said, “and less time in business.” April 9, 2006