In 1998, Cindy-Ann Thomas played her first game of golf.
She was told that participating in the sport would help her network and build business connections. As a young Black attorney who was motivated to advance her career, Thomas took up the sport despite her lack of knowledge and experience.
"Over time, I got better at it and started to see the business benefits," Thomas said. "Golf helped me socialize with business leaders, meet new clients and attend business events that I wouldn't have been able to had I not met them through the sport."
Thomas is now principal, co-chair and diversity consultant for the law firm Littler Mendelson in Charlotte, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio. Businesses that include Fortune 500 companies have confided in her for counsel as well as for diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) services.
She attributes her career successes to her own hard work, perseverance—and golf.
"There are benefits to golf being an activity over which people at any level in an organization can bond professionally—whether you're a young associate or a business leader," Thomas explained.
Research shows that golf can be good for business. According to Syracuse University's online MBA program:
- 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs play golf.
- CEOs who regularly play golf are paid 17 percent more on average than those who do not.
- More than half of business professionals who play golf said the sport is the perfect networking tool.
- 80 percent of business professionals who golf agree that the sport helps establish new business connections.
However, golf lacks diversity. Women represent more than half of the U.S. workforce yet made up 25 percent of recreational golfers in the U.S. in 2021, according to the National Golf Foundation. They have been disproportionately represented from golf, in part due to a perceived "boys club" culture that has existed for decades.
Less than 3 percent of recreational golfers are Black, per a report by a professor at Springfield College in Massachusetts. This could be attributed to a Caucasians-only clause that existed in the PGA Tour from 1934 to 1961, a rule that discouraged minorities from golfing for years even after it was rescinded.
But women and people of color can use golf as a tool to ascend into leadership roles.
"Golf is still very white and very male," Thomas said. "And, from a DE&I perspective, the implications of the realities for certain demographics who have historically been underrepresented both on the [golf course] and in the boardroom—women and people of color—are that golf can provide a significant access point from which many have been historically excluded."
Parallels Between Golf and Corporate America
Golf presents an opportunity for managers to see how employees handle situations like those in corporate America. For example, golf requires players to assess risks, recognize potential hazards, consider contingencies, learn from their mistakes and be adaptable to diverse personalities.
"It's the ultimate networking wonder," said Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association in Charleston, S.C. "You are able to clearly witness someone's temperament, judgment and personality, which are critical when doing business."
Women who golf have experienced career benefits, according to a survey of Executive Women Golf Association members:
- 79 percent of respondents agreed that they get to know a person better on the course.
- 73 percent noted that golf has helped them develop new relationships.
- 62 percent credit golf with helping them to try new things.
Bonding with Employees
Executives who golf play a critical role in diversifying the sport, which could lead to more business opportunities for women and people of color, Thomas said.
"More-senior business leaders should get to know those more-junior business associates who are women and people of color, and then potentially become more willing to actively advocate for them, which actions will lead to more of those traditionally underrepresented members in the leadership ranks," she explained.
Women and people of color who are interested in the sport should consider approaching managers and other company executives about playing together, Thomas said. Talk about golf with them. Or ask them for golf course or golf vacation recommendations.
"If they are reluctant to approach business leaders this directly, try to sign up for golf tournaments in which those more-senior leaders are golfing so that they will at least be participating in the same event," she said. "Be sure to make time for some socializing at the clubhouse after the round. Taking steps like these can make future invitations to golf outings from them more likely."
She implored business leaders who belong to private country clubs to invite golfers who are women or people of color from their companies.
"If you are a member of your club's board, use your clout in leading the charge to actively diversify your pro-shop staff and review your board recruitment and refreshment policies to get more women and younger members," Thomas said.
Here are some do's and don'ts of team-building activities for business leaders to bond with their workers.