There is a whole lot more going on at the golf course than hitting a little white ball around.
The game may be the attraction, but chances are good there just might be a business deal being discussed, or perhaps a client is being entertained with the hope of building a relationship for some future time when a deal needs to be consummated.
“You can really get to know people on the golf course,” says Joe Borkowski, a retired senior vice president for Chase Bank. “You really get to know your customers when you play. People really open up when they're on the course.”
Borkowski, who lives in Chesterton and plays at Sand Creek Country Club, says any executive who pays attention on the course can learn a lot about another player-and not just about that player's golf game. “You get to know about he acts around others,” he says. Little things such as whether the player counts all his strokes or calls penalties on himself can tell a lot about the person.
For Bill Satterlee, a lawyer with the Valparaiso firm of Hoeppner Wagner and Evans, a golf course not only offers beautiful surroundings, it's a place where he can spend four hours or more with clients and really get to know them.
“If I had an appointment with someone in my office, at most I'd get an hour with them. Out on the golf course, I get 4 or 41/2 hours and you really get to know them,” says Satterlee.
“You can learn a lot about a person,” adds Satterlee. “You can see how they conduct themselves and how honest they are.” Those are both good things to know in building any kind of a business or professional relationship, he says.
His course of choice is Sand Creek Country Club in Chesterton. “I really think it's the premier course in the area,” he says.
As long as the weather and his schedule permit, Satterlee says he likes to golf three times a week. Even though he's a late comer to golf (he didn't start playing until 2000), Satterlee is hooked.
“No matter what your handicap, if you're honest about what you're shooting, you can be competitive and have a good time with anyone,” he says.
Barb A. Young, president of the Porter County Community Foundation and an owner and developer of Aberdeen Country Club, absolutely loves golf. From the competition it offers to the opportunity to be outdoors to the opportunity to bond with someone, Young says it's pretty difficult to find something better than a day on the golf course.
“I love the game. I grew up playing golf,” says Young. “It's a positive experience and it offers great camaraderie. It's all about relationship building and the better you know someone, the easier it is to do business.”
Young played her first round of golf when she was 12 years old, after begging her father to let her play. She's been at it ever since.
“It is a very challenging sport and I like it because it is competitive,” says Young. But, she adds, the competition isn't with another player, but against the course.
Young plays in a lot of charitable events as a way to not only entertain clients but also to give back to the community while doing something she loves.
Young, who has a 10 to 12 handicap, says she would advise young people to take up golf only if they love it. “If you like the sport, by all means take it up, but don't do it just because you think it will help you in business.”
Tom Edwards, president of Horizon Bank in Michigan City, plays golf to relax, but he also uses it as a way to spend time with clients. He belongs to Long Beach Country Club in Long Beach, but says his favorite course is Lost Dunes in Bridgman, Mich.
“When you're on the course, you get four or five hours with someone that you wouldn't have an opportunity to have during a regular business day. You can develop some real rapport on the course,” Edwards says.
While Edwards says he and clients can both find enjoyment in golf, he adds, “You'll usually find their real love is business. Hopefully in the time we're together, I'll learn something about them.”
Edwards has been playing golf since he was 7 years old, on a course in his hometown of Sharon, Pa. He says his first set of clubs had wooden shafts.
Today, he plays to a nine handicap and when he's out with a client, the key is to make sure everyone has fun. “You have to find a common ground in how you play, and then it's much more enjoyable.”
Kevin Beres of LaPorte Savings Bank said he learns a lot about people by playing a round of golf with them.
“You learn about people on the golf course, about how they react in different situations,” says Beres, a member of Pottawattomie Country Club in Michigan City.
He says he doesn't really have a favorite course, because “I've not seen a golf course I didn't like.”
Beres, who admits to a six or seven handicap, played golf in high school, but not competitively because baseball was his sport of choice.
“Besides being fun, golf helps you develop relationships and that's important in business,” says Beres. “And you can play golf for a long time and be successful. It's a sport you can play for the rest of your life. It's really about quality time.”
Mary Wellnitz, owner of Figment Group, a health care and insurance consulting firm in LaPorte, says she plays golf mostly for relaxation.
Since nearly all of her clients are online, she doesn't get an opportunity to play with them, although she does play in several charitable fund-raising outings each summer.
“It's not as easy for me as a business owner to get out and play as often as I would like, which is why I dovetail it with other community events,” Wellnitz says, adding that her favorite course is Pheasant Valley Country Club in Crown Point.
Wellnitz has played for 20 years and says she likes the competition the sport provides, especially when it's against the course. “I don't measure competition against someone else, especially if it's a friend. Golf is supposed to be fun.”
For golf pros in Northwest Indiana, the goal is to make sure every golfer has a good time. But when they know someone is entertaining an important client, they will go the extra step to make sure the outing is memorable.
Clayton Friend, the golf pro at Sand Creek Country Club in Chesterton, says, “If someone has a special request, we do our best to make it happen. But it doesn't matter if it's for a business client; our service standards are across-the-board.”
Friend says consistency is the key in providing good service for golfers. “No matter what, we put our best foot forward,” he says.
But if someone calls to reserve a tee time and asks about making sure his guests have a memorable time, Friend says Sand Creek will go the extra step to make that happen.
“Maybe it will be a personal lesson for the guest or maybe we will put a dozen balls in their locker or a shirt and hat in the golf cart. If someone calls and says they have $100 they want to spend in the pro shop for their guest, we will take care of that.”
Friend says that doesn't happen every time because not all members call ahead to ask. “But we're here to help take the pressure off to make sure the client has a good time.”
Steve Smead, the golf pro at White Hawk Country Club in Crown Point, says he is driven by providing the best possible customer service to all golfers.
“We try to do the little things like get the clubs from the car and put them on the cart,” says Smead. “If we know ahead of time, we will recognize and address them by name.”
“The way I look at it, we're in the accommodating business. We want to make sure the member gets that one-on-one time out on the golf course and that it's a memorable experience.”
Ernie Sanborn, the golf pro at Briar Ridge in Schererville, says he wants to make sure golfers have the best experience possible when they visit the course.
“It's hard to separate who are business clients and who is there just to golf, so we treat all guests the same way. The key is our first and last contact-when they drop off their clubs and when they pick them up.”
Sanborn says he makes sure visitors' clubs are taken to their cart when they arrive and that the clubs are cleaned and waiting for them when they're ready to leave. He also says that if asked, names will be put on lockers and a hat or a dozen balls will be in the locker as a gift for the member's clients.
“Those things are a nice reminder of their day,” says Sanborn.
“We want to make sure the beverage cart is out there for them when they're on the course, that the pace of play is just right,” he says. “And when we know a customer will have clients out there on the course with him, we make caddies available to them, if they want. It's a different atmosphere when you walk the course. It's more intimate.”
But, says Sanborn, providing those kinds of extras is impossible unless members call and set it up.
Scott Kretchman, golf pro at Blackthorn in South Bend, says quality service was his number one priority.
Blackthorn is a public course operated by the city of South Bend, but it ranks as the 39th best public course in the nation, according to Kretchman. “The course is in great shape. It's challenging, but it's golfer-friendly. You can do well, but it's not easy.”
In other words, says Kretchman, it's the kind of course to which business executives love to bring clients.
“I've had execs call me and tell me they had a foursome, give me their credit card and ask me to take care of things for him,” Kretchman says, adding that he's willing to accommodate those kinds of requests, which aren't uncommon.
For Mike Higdon, the golf pro at The Course at Aberdeen in Valparaiso, the course layout and its service is what makes it attractive for executives. Last year, The Course at Aberdeen received a 5-star rating from Chicagoland Golf, a publication that rates courses throughout the Chicago area.
“We feel our course is unique,” says Higdon, who also doubles as the golf coach for Valparaiso University. “Out on the course, the pace of play is such that you feel you're the only ones out there. For business players, that kind of atmosphere allows people to speak freely,” he says.
“From our end, we try to treat everyone to a total experience. If we know this is someone special that's being entertained, let us know and we can set back a dozen logo golf balls or pick up a shirt from the pro shop for them. It's something that helps reinforce the experience of playing here later on,” says Higdon.
The semi-private course hosts “a ton of small corporate outings each year,” says Higdon. From the time golfers arrive to the time they leave, the goal is to pamper visitors with cart attendants and make sure everything in the clubhouse and out on the course is set up for an enjoyable day.
“Tons of deals get done out on the course,” says Higdon. “It's a place where you've got the total attention of your client for 41/2 hours as opposed to maybe an hour at a sales meeting. You can build a relationship, and that's what business is all about.”