Executive Play

How’d golf get to be a businessman’s sport?

How did golf become such a big part of business culture?
How did golf become such a big part of business culture?

Three former Goldman Sachs employees filed suit against the investment bank on Wednesday for systematically discriminating against women. The lawsuit targets the firm’s “male-dominated trading-floor culture centered on golf and other physical pursuits,” as the New York Times puts it—a claim that will likely surprise no one, since golf is so closely associated with the business world. One plaintiff even notes that her male colleagues took frequent golf outings but never invited her along. How’d a stick-and-ball game get so linked to business?

Through club culture. Golf as we know it started in 15th-century Scotland. For several centuries it was enjoyed by royals and agricultural laborers alike. Lower-class Scots played the game on public land with makeshift equipment; it was a rowdier pastime, often accompanied with drinking. The first golfing club (which drafted the first formal rules of the game and hosted an annual competition) dates to 1744. In the mid-1800s, private institutions devoted to golf-playing proliferated. Businessmen and other members of the middle class took to the idea of getting out of the city and having an exclusive place to hobnob with their economic equals. Other people continued to play, but the club version of the game, with its costly subscriptions, dress codes, and course etiquette, became dominant.

Besides the club phenomenon, there’s a theory that handicapping made golf, over other sports, especially appealing to businessmen. The practice, by which a player’s score is adjusted according to his skill level, became widespread when England’s Royal Wimbledon Golf Club set out rules for how to apply it in 1898. With handicapping, it’s possible for players of uneven skill and physical ability to compete, and for the worse player to win if he has a better outing than usual. Maybe businessmen golfing with clients found this gentlemanly, leveling aspect of the game conducive to deal-making.

In the United States, the business-golf pairing is as old as the local popularity of the sport. In the mid- to late-19th century, American businessmen were mad for country clubs, where they could avoid the stress of city life (and less-desirable immigrant groups). At first they played polo and cricket and hunted, but in the 1880s, golf caught on, as it was better for casual conversation. St. Andrew’s in Yonkers, the oldest continuously existing golf club in the country, was founded in 1888 by Scotsman John Reid and some friends as a place where they could relax and get to know potential business associates. Some notable businessmen of the time, including Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, were avid golfers, and the media wrote stories about their passion for the game—reinforcing the idea that it was the preferred sport for tycoons.

Today, golf isn’t just a part of corporate life, it’s arguably connected to advancement. A 2008 study found a correlation between golf skill and compensation among corporate CEOs in the United States. Those with higher handicaps earned less money, and the ones who golfed made more than the ones who didn’t.

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Explainer thanks Rand Jerris of the USGA’s Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History

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