Must I play golf to get ahead?

In many companies, anyone who wants to reach the executive suite had better get some clubs. Here are the (unwritten) rules of the game.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: Please settle an argument. I recently started a new job at a company where all the top executives (and everyone else who wants to be one of them someday) plays golf. I am not athletic at all, a major klutz in fact, and I want to try to get ahead here without learning this dumb game. My husband says I am kidding myself and that I had better learn how to play and if possible, learn to like it. Is he right? - Junebug

Dear Junebug: It seems so. "Women - or men, for that matter - who are not golfing are choosing to neglect one of the most powerful business and career-development tools there is," declares Hilary Bruggen.

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Bruggen may be a tiny bit biased: A former head of global marketing for KPMG, she quit that job to start and run Strelmark (www.strelmark.com), a Washington, D.C., firm that conducts corporate golf-etiquette workshops for companies like Microsoft (Bill Gates is an avid golfer), Deloitte & Touche, Wachovia, and Smith Barney Citigroup.

Still, Bruggen speaks from personal experience: "I got the job as head of global marketing at KPMG in large part because top management knew me - and they knew me from the golf course," she says.

And consider this: In a 2004 survey of 1,000 women golfers, 73% said that the game had helped them develop important business relationships, and over half said that being able to talk knowledgeably about golf had contributed to their success, according to the poll by Golf for Women magazine, investment firm Oppenheimer, and insurer MassMutual.

Another study, by nonprofit research group Catalyst, found that, among 705 women managers at Fortune 1,000 companies, 41% said that not participating in informal social networks held them back at work, and the informal networking activity they mentioned most was...well, you can guess.

Since golf is such a big deal among your new colleagues, why not take a few lessons? Bruggen says that being a "major klutz" need not hold you back. "Women who can't golf, don't," she observes. "But men who can't, do. They're hackers, and that's okay. The most important thing is cementing good relationships on the course, not whether you're Tiger Woods."

The best way to learn the game, she says, is to politely decline well-meaning pointers from your dad, brother, or buddy, and invest instead in lessons from a pro, "preferably over a long weekend at a resort." Sounds good! (Reminds me of one of my favorite golf jokes: Why does a golf pro always tell you to keep your head down when you swing? So you won't see him laughing.)

Once you've mastered the basics of the sport, you'll be ready for the finer points of golf-course etiquette. Bruggen teaches a seminar called "Business Golf 101" that includes 20 tips for making the most of 18 holes.

"People don't do business with people they dislike or distrust, so your aim should be to build likability," she says.

A few ways to go about it:

  • "If someone's about to tee off, the chances of a brilliant shot are very low," Bruggen says. So keep your eye on that person's ball, so you know exactly where it lands. When you find the ball for them, "people are relieved, and they see you as someone who's on top of things, who pays attention to detail."
  • If you happen to hit a longer, straighter ball than the person you're playing with (especially if that person is your boss), say something nice about an earlier shot of his or hers, if you can. "Take the focus off your game and keep it on theirs," she says.
  • Never, ever give advice unless directly and specifically asked for it.
  • Don't force a discussion of business topics on the golf course. "Save it for the '19th hole,' that is, the clubhouse bar," says Bruggen. Why? "Someone who is playing well, who is 'in the zone', doesn't want to be distracted by business talk," she explains. "And someone who is playing badly needs to concentrate. He or she doesn't want to be distracted either."
  • If you take a lousy shot, don't whine about it. Just move on.

Bruggen finds that women in general have less experience with the unwritten rules of golf, so she has a few extra suggestions, starting with a tip on what to wear: "Don't wear girly pastel colors like pink or carry a golf bag with frills on it." Good idea: Leave the girly pastel colors to the guys.

For more tips, you may want to check out a brand-new book (publication date April 23) by former Fortune writer David Rynecki, called "Deals on the Green: Lessons on Business and Golf from America's Top Executives." It features interviews with Warren Buffett, Charles Schwab, Jack Welch, and many other bigwigs on what they learned on the golf course that helped them succeed in business, including "friendship, imagination, tenacity, multitasking, and compassion." But even if playing golf doesn't turn out to impart that kind of wisdom, you might just find you enjoy it.

Is it fair that at some companies, playing golf is a key to reaching the executive suite ? Do you play golf? Have you learned career lessons from your time on the links? What advice do you have for new golfers? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.