Someone—not Mark Twain, apparently—famously stated that “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” But for those of us with the appetite to dive deeper, golf is also a rich source of life and business lessons.
Judging both by the emotions golf inspires and the “par” that so many of us fail to shoot, golf may well be the most difficult sport. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for those unwilling to fail spectacularly on their way to competence.
But for the patient, the detail-oriented, and the cautious, golf is a fascinating game—and one bursting with metaphors.
You make a plan, and adjust it based on your ability to execute. You learn your strengths and adjust your style of play around them. Your greatest opponent is not the other person or people in your group, but the course itself.
6 of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from the game of golf
1. Keep your head still when you putt. As I swing my putter head back, I’m always eager to see where my shot is going to end up. Will my stroke produce the shot in my mind? Will I put myself in the best possible position for my next shot?
But this eagerness leads to one of the most common golf mistakes: moving my head as I’m about to strike the ball. That is, looking up toward the target before I’ve finished my swing—and ruining my swing mechanics in the process.
It’s a lesson in execution: Commit to the process in full. A good result comes from strong execution—finishing your stroke before you move your head.
2. Find (and listen to) a good caddy. It’s natural for golfers to want to “go it alone”—to attack a course with just their own ability as a guide. It’s the same for entrepreneurs, most of whom start out as individualists, wanting to do everything ourselves.
Both a round of golf and a business venture are far more likely to succeed when we have expert counsel. Caddies have in-depth course knowledge; business advisors have in-depth market/industry knowledge.
3. Use the right tools for the job. Golfers carry 14 clubs, each of which is useful in a specific context. For example, you use a driver off the tee and a putter on the green—and except for freakish moments, you’d never use either in the other’s context.
And it gets more nuanced. You might hit your 7-iron 150 yards, but if you’re facing a 150-yard approach shot with a little wind at your back, you might switch to an 8-iron. You might even swing a little lighter or change the shape of your shot to accommodate the wind.
No single club is effective in 100% of golf situations. Similarly, no single employee or product or strategy is effective in 100% of business situations. Understand the specific capabilities of all the resources at your disposal, and deploy them properly.
4. Consistency is key. Many golf amateurs try to swing as hard as they can—to get as much power as possible on every single shot. But the goal of the golf swing isn’t maximum power. It’s repeatability.
Even at the professional level, it’s very rare that players swing with 100% power. Instead, they create a swing that they can consistently reproduce.
Especially for startups, consistency in the form of repeatable growth is the goal. This extends to internal processes. A business is a system that supports its own continuous function—not something that buckles under its own weight.
5. Manage your emotions. There’s a reason the cliché of the golfer is someone who loses their temper. Golf is an emotionally taxing game. In the rare exception when a gopher’s to blame, you are the sole cause of your own mistakes.
The more you let your emotions get to you, the worse you play; the worse you play, the more your emotions spiral. It’s a vicious cycle that every golfer—without exception—has been through, and tries to avoid.
Learning to separate results from emotions is one of the most powerful assets you can have on and off the golf course. All you can do is plan and execute as well as you can—the results are largely up to fate.
6. You’re playing the course—not your opponent. In competitive golf situations, it’s tempting to change what I do based on what my opponent is doing. He’s hitting a 3-wood off the tee? Maybe I don’t need a driver. He’s going for the green in two? Maybe I shouldn’t lay up.
But the truth is, every player plays their own game—not their opponent’s game. You play around your own strengths and limitations in the context of this specific course.
In business, you should be aware of your competitors, but you shouldn’t adjust strategy too dramatically based on what they’re doing. The best thing you can do is understand your market, your customers, and your capabilities, then use that knowledge to help people get the most out of what you offer.
You’ll notice that most of this list has to do with the mental side of golf. The physical side—the swing itself—is unique to every player, but mental lessons are universal. Perfecting your mental game gives you the best chance of making the most of your natural ability, and scoring as well as possible.