All of us start with youthful dreams. But sooner or later you realize that you've turned into something different than what you imagined.
I always wanted to be a designer. I learned early on that being a designer involved, among other things, affecting a manner of dress, speech and general attitude that would signal to other designers that you shared their access to the creative muses. At the same time, these same cues would enable non-designers to dimly apprehend that there was something special about you that commanded a certain level of respect and even awe.
To be honest, I was never much good at this even when I was in my twenties, and now that I'm about to cross over into my second half-century on earth, I may as well admit defeat. I'm not special. I look, talk, and act exactly like a million other middle-aged, upper-middle-class, balding, white, suburban businessmen.
But there is one difference. I don't golf.
I've come to know a little bit about demographics, customer profiling and market segmentation, and I can tell I'm supposed to care deeply about golf. As befitting my station in life, I spend a lot of time in airports, and there I'm besieged with pictures of golfers. Occasionally these images actually promote a particular golf course or golf-related product, but more commonly golf is used as a metaphor, usually for business success. The key card I was entrusted with by the Crowne Plaza Hotel on a recent layover at LAX is a good example. The photograph on it shows two men standing side by side on, I think, a putting green. One, wearing an odd apron-type-thing that I'm guessing identifies him as a caddy, examines something in his hand. The other, gripping a club, stands alertly at his side. Beneath this, some type: PHILOSOPHY work together. After a great deal of study, I noted that the first four letters of "philosophy" are bolder than the others. Could this mean something? A visit to Google ("phil+crowne+plaza") and, aha: it turns out that the guy with the club must be someone named Phil Mickelson, pro golfer and Crowne Plaza spokesman. A profoundly rich tapestry of layered codes, all intended to predispose me to the comforts of the Crowne Plaza, all completely lost on me.
Lest you get concerned, although I've never heard of Mr. Mickelson, even I know the most famous golfer in the world, Tiger Woods. If you spend any time in airports or paging through business magazines, you quickly realize that Woods is assumed to be a surefire aspirational figure for guys like me. He's everywhere. His endorsement contracts are legion, including sports-related brands like Nike, Gatorade, and Titleist, and general consumer companies like General Motors, American Express, TAG Heuer, and Gillette.
For me, the most inescapable expression of Woods's authority is the one deployed since 2003 by management consultant Accenture in their "Be A Tiger" campaign, which links photographs of the golfer in action with abstractions like Distractions, Focus, and Hindsight. "As perhaps the world's ultimate symbol of high performance, he serves as a metaphor for our commitment to helping companies become high-performance businesses," Accenture says on its website. "Informed by findings from our comprehensive study of over 500 high performers, as well as our unparalleled experience, the advertising draws upon our understanding of the world's elite companies, and our ability to channel that knowledge on behalf of our clients." The tantalizing element here is that reference to those "500 high performers," carefully selected by Accenture for their passionate commitment to both business success and Tiger Woods, an opinion-shaping elite that obviously excludes — by a long shot — me.
It's no secret that golf and business success are inextricably linked. The Wall Street Journal, itself a stronghold of golf columns, golf metaphors and golf advertising, ran a widely-reprinted story last year titled "Business Golf Changes Course." "Business golf is a collusion that has developed over the years between business people and their clients," according to the WSJ. The old model, "foursomes of cigar-chomping white males closing deals at exclusive country clubs" has given way to today's business golfers, who claim that "the sport's primary value is to get away from an office environment to network and build relationships, in the hopes of doing deals down the road."
Apparently, there is a small industry of consultants who stand at the ready to provide remedial assistance to people like me. These include a former KPMG marketing exec, Hilary Bruggen Fordwich, who "gives seminars at companies and one-on-one lessons to lobbyists and other executives on organizing golf retreats, avoiding business golf blunders and deciding when best to broach the business topic." Broaching the business topic — yikes! Indeed, every time I lose a potential project to one of the big identity consultancies, I always end up muttering the same thing: their goddamned new business team must have taken them golfing. Yes, while I'm sitting on my butt worrying about letterspacing, other people are out on the links, broaching things.
The sad thing about all this is that golf is, or should be, in my blood. My late father was a passionate golfer, playing once or twice a week at public courses in northeastern Ohio like Seneca and Briarwood. And he was good. Shooting a hole-in-one gets your name in the back of Golf Digest, and he did it not once, but twice. My brother Don is a serious golfer today.
But I'm not. A good part of my job is helping clients imagine how they could reach specific audiences most effectively. This means, too often, reducing people to stereotypes. As my father's son, being a non-golfer may be a last vestige of adolescent rebellion. Or it may be a denial that I've turned into a stereotype that I never chose. Or it may even be a way of resisting aging and, ultimately, death. No matter what, it is my handicap.