Tenuous Links: On Golf and Management

My memory is a little hazy on this, but I believe it was Roger Ebert who once described one or another egghead conference as “the leisure of the theory class.” There is also a class of business theorists out there, and it almost goes without saying that their leisure activity of choice is golf. And so the inevitable has happened: a unified theory of golf and business.

Specifically, an article  in the current Strategy + Business, a magazine published by consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton, suggests there is something to be learned from the “direct connection between golf and management.” The key, apparently, is to approach each by way of “systems thinking,” which isn’t defined, but seems to mean thinking about a system.

The author explains: “Golf, as a game, continually challenges us to improve the performance of a complex system (the human organism) through focused attention and the practice of well-disciplined routines. … This is why I believe that the process of a golfer trying to play and improve his game is systematically identical to that of a manager trying to control and improve the performance of an organization.”

Yeah, OK. I guess that’s true as far as it goes–which to my mind is a few yards shy of insight. Wouldn’t the same analogy hold for almost any pastime that involves increasing skill levels? To see, let’s swap golf with Doom, the infamous “first-person shooter,” multiplayer computer game, in a few additional sentences from the article’s opening section:

  • Doom shows how sound fundamentals, drilled into habit, can facilitate the unencumbered motion characteristic of expert performances …
  • Doom played seriously teaches us strategic thinking. We can’t just fire and hope–we have to think ahead continually …
  • Doom encourages us to contemplate multiple scenarios and consider the downsides of our strategies.
  • Doom, like effective management, requires analysis, but will not yield to it.
  • Skilled Doomers can summon multiple effective routines, assemble them into appropriate coalitions, and then release them to operate autonomously. 

And so on. (I confirmed the plausibility of each of these statements with a frequent Doom player, incidentally.) Now, I freely admit that the Doom/golf parallel becomes strained later in the article as it goes into more detail about the “systems view” of a golf swing, etc., but I think you get the idea.

I don’t golf (or play Doom) myself, but I have no problem with people who do. Still, it seems to me that many golfers have a tendency to concoct elaborate theories as to the sport’s larger significance and how it transcends mere hobbyness. So I think that–barring the possibility of a an Alan Sokal-type scenarioStrategy + Business can put this story on its cover not so much because of actual parallels between golf and business but because golf is probably the most overrationalized pastime in America. So my prediction would be that few if any will become better managers by dwelling on this stuff. (The author, by the way, is apparently doing a book on the same topic.) But my caveat to that prediction is that a lot of managers will be anxious to read all about it anyway.