Michael Bierut | Essays

My Handicap

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business

Comments [45]

Great write. I too, although not middle aged, am facing the same adversity as I am at the age when it seems that everyone starts golfing that hasn't as a kid so that they will be prepared for middle age. Perhaps it is because I cannot see spending 3+ hours walking around a nicely mowed yard hitting a ball to be productive, but then again I surf–spending 5+ hours doing nothing but sitting in the ocean awaiting another wave to come my way. While for some it may be a way to spend a relaxing afternoon, I achieve my meditative state by waiting on the fleeting moment that I can ride a wave and feel truly connected to nature, "Or it may even be a way of resisting aging and, ultimately, death."
Chad K

I don't golf either. Never understood it. I went out once with workmates after they begged, and we got rained out after one abysmal hole. The clubhouse I liked.

Think of it this way: those clients you lose because your competition took them golfing--are those clients you want? I'm not being golf-ist here, but they're going to want to golfing more than once. If it's that important to you (and I know it's not), just get a golfer on your team. We have an avid golfer on staff and he keeps certain key clients entertained when necessary. Thank god, because I'm certainly not going out there.

Well I did Golf in my early to late 20's, and it seemed to be out of step with the image of being a Designer in the early 90's and this was pre Tiger Woods, I live in Southern Ontario where there are hundreds of Golf courses, I guess initially the appeal was being able to get out with friends and seeing parts of the province that I would have not normally have seen. But as I grew older and Golf became more popular and expensive, it became less appealing. Now I find those clients/people who do Golf or people who pick up the sport it's more about image, clothing, brands, what kind of club you use defines the type of player you are even right down to the shoes. Just an overdose of brands! I guess just like every other popular sport now. It has become something onto it's own.

Golf is an admirable pursuit, however, in the design community, you might actually be in more trouble if you don't play guitar.
James Reyman

I look, talk, and act exactly like a million other middle-aged, upper-middle-class, balding, white, suburban businessmen.

I disagree Michael — the big difference is that you don't set off the Marketing Douchebag Alarm in the brains of people under 30.

Great article, as always.


Mr. Bierut, are you reading my diary again? Kidding. I loved the article and I agree with Ryan, above (and James). Every community/age-group has its favorite hobbies. It's interesting how these activities evolve and grow as we mature (or regress, for those special cases).
Tim Belonax

From the Department of Pointed-Link Responses:

Michael --

I've taken a quick poll around Landor San Francisco, and can confirm there are only two golfers out of an office of 128 employees -- one female, one male. Neither one is "goddamned," but they do speak fluent Business.
m. kingsley

My late father introduced me to golf a few weeks after I finally managed to beat him one-on-one at basketball. I golfed a lot in the years just after college, but that dropped of when I got into competitive sailing.

I haven't touched a golf club in 10 years. I would too embarrassed to try to do business on the links! Though I would be virtually guaranteed one crucial element to success - the client would win every time.
Stephen Macklin

What you (and I) resist is Business Golf, not golf itself - for most it is much more than a hobby. Making assumptions about others thinking can be dangerous, but I can't help but assume that out on the green, under a blazing sun, there are many thinking, what the ^%$! am I doing here?

If a deal is to be made, a relationship is to be built, what choice do those facing Business Golf have? The culture of that community is stifling, and the (stereo)types that use the course as a satellite office don't do business with those who don't play the game: whether it be golf, steak dinners and strip clubs, or letting your bosses' brat nephew have a token job in your department regardless if he can outwit a stack of burgers.

In our profession, golf can easily be avoided, and thus, silently resisted. The company that does the logo doesn't get invited to the course. Thank goodness for this small victory.

When played for its own sake, golf is an incredibly difficult sport that requires a zen-like state to excel to an even basic proficiency. I once knew a woman of 72 who did exactly that. She hit the links as a function of life process. She played on her own, on public courses, and with expectations only of improving her own score. Then there was the added benefit of taking exercise in the great outdoors (as well as a break from her loving, but needy, partner).

My point - if it can be labeled as such - is Business Golf is a soul crushing prospect for those in the 'creative' professions and should be resisted, but golf itself can be a wonderful thing.

We haven't spoken to the environmental impact of golf, the waste of land. But that's for another day.

The 'links' between golf and business should be broken.

In the UK there are hundreds of wonderful municipal courses which are inexpensive to play on and forego all the airs and graces of member's clubs.

I have played in Scotland, the cradle of golf, on a rough and rugged beautiful course by the sea. Payment was made into an honesty box and woods/irons borrowed from a shed.

I can't imagine honesty boxes in operation at the Crown Plaza.
p matson

This essay has nothing to do with design. Michael Bierut's self-involvment and cult-of-personality have both overshadowed any relevance he once had. Michael: Please start a personal blog if you are going to go on and on about yourself. Or better, go star in the yet-to-be released hit "'Eric: The Eric Gill Story' Changing the world, one well spaced letter at a time." But please, do not sully the reputation this website has for refreshing and succinct content.
james walter

Excellent article, Mr. Bierut. I don't golf but I do play a little guitar, so I guess I fit right in with the design community.

My wife and I have lived in a condo right beside a golf course for five years, and in that time two golf balls have bashed our bedroom window. One came through the window and knocked a lamp off her bedside table. I lost count of the number of balls that I've found on our patio. Needless to say, I flinch every time I hear the word "Fore!"
Michael Whaley

I'm demographically close to an exact match for Michael B., and enjoyed this read quite a bit. I grew up in the sixties with a father and brothers who golfed, I played on the golf team in high school. I too spend much more time practicing my letterspacing than my chipping, but I still play, and enjoy it. A couple observations:

Golf is such a popular metaphor for business because of the mental game. It's of course a very challenging physical activity to do well, but it's the demanding combination of focus, discipline, and Zen which makes the game fascinating--and such a resonant metaphor for businessmen. Despite the Phil card above, it's also almost a completely solitary game. You control your fate, not your team. You have time to think--perhaps too much time. It's a game of recognizing situations and responding appropriately, with consistency. Lessons well learned by business leaders. Like many things it's an activity with a profound inner beauty not well appreciated by those who don't partake. Such is life.

"Business golf" really doesn't exist anymore, in my experience. Certainly not in the manner it did 25 years ago. It's no different than any other activity one might do with clients or friends such as dinner, a ball game, a BBQ.

Lastly, I think the essay has much to do with design. It's about perception (culture's prevailing one and Michael's counter), and about how business gets done--which is certainly a topic that designers need awareness of. The personal is actually what makes the immediacy of web-writing so alive. I come to this site daily, but my design magazines collect in a pile, often unopened weeks after they arrive.

I put my guitar down when I was 24. :)

Tom Dolan

Great post, Michael.

Golf is for corporate weenies!

And keep on posting about whatever you want. I, for one, read your Warning: May Contain Non-Design Content essay!
Daniel Pipitone

On the subject of non-design-related content, (thank you, Daniel) and in particular to James Walter: I'd urge you to read Michael Bierut's earlier post on precisely this subject.

Jessica Helfand

It's funny, whenever I think of graphic design and golf, it reminds me of Henk Elenga's scheme to boost his client roster by golfing. As it is the sport of the affluent, it was an excellent tactical idea to start playing and scout out potential clients in Los Angeles' wealthy suburbs.

I'm unsure I could ever hang with the golfing myself, but, oh, the carts, wacky gophers, and Kenny Loggins soundtrack!
Ian Lynam

The late Kurt Vonnegutonce said:
I have to say this in defense of humankind: No matter in what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got there. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these crazy games going on, which could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the games that were already going on when you got here were love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf and girls’ basketball. Even crazier than golf,though, is modern American politics, where, thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative.

Kind of off-topic of what the actual post is about, but it can remind us that golf is still a game. Just a game that's been played for decades. People enjoy the game regardless of their professional background, unless of course they are professional golfers in which case will enjoy playing the game and the huge endorsements that follow.

Michael, Kevin Costner in Tin Cup might sway to go play a round or two.
The golf swing is about gaining control of your life and letting go at the same time.
Greg Mihalko

“Golf is a good walk spoiled” Mark Twain.

James, are you one of those people that believes that design exists in its own bubble—separate from business and commerce? Playing golf as business fraternization is something that eludes most designers—especially women.

I got good advice many years ago from my brother, himself an über-schmoozer and jock. I was debating taking golf lessons as a way to not only build client relationships, but to somehow bond with my golf-crazed (then) in-laws.

“Don't,” he said. “You'll never be good enough at it and you will only spend a lot of money and get really frustrated.”

So, I never learned. But meet me at the 19th Hole anytime.
Michelle French

I suppose my gripe with this essay has little to do with the fact that it is not particularly about design. My problem is that its not particularly about anything, except for maybe that Michael Bierut doesn't play golf. I both read and understood the aforementioned "Warning" article. I think articles about things unrelated to design enrich us all as people and as artists. fine. we all agree. I still stand by the argument that this essay is a puff piece and not particularly enlightening, on any subject. In the same way that I really don't need julia alison's lifecast in my life, I dont think the internet should be an excuse for us all to get bogged down in personal anecdotes from minor celebrities.
james walter

Does anyone at Pentagram golf?
john massengale

something tells me I'd enjoy a whole book on golf by Michael Bierut more than a design column by james walter

For those keeping score in the gallery:
Bierut -- Eagle
"walter" -- Double Bogey


//ps. how's that?//
Joe Moran

2 thumbs up for james walter. Navel-gazing, midlife reflections need to be more relevant to us all, please. this post is stretching my sympathy nodes a bit much.
zoe mitchell

I've been golfing sporadically since I was 7, and would urge you all to pick up a club and get on the driving range.

Focus on the game. It's fun, it's physically demanding (really - go hit 100 balls on the driving range if you do't believe me) and there's something very soothing about living in a crowded metropolitan city and being able to spend a few hours walking around the picturesque greenery of a golf course.

For me, the draw is simple: You'll never be so good that it'll get boring, and you'll never be so bad that you'll get frustrated.

As far as the business networking is concerned: do it if you want, don't if you don't.

But give the game a shot. You'll enjoy yourself.
Andy Malhan

It is sad to see that so many artists have no appreciation for reflection.

I teach journalism at a community college and edit a small town weekly newspaper. I am 58 and have never touched a club. A few years back I took on an administrative role at the college stepping out of the classroom and into the boardroom, so to speek. A big part of the new job was developmental work. The president and I often made calls together. He knew of my non-golfing handicap and so made a deal with me: he'd take all the golfing clients and I would take all the tennis players (I've played tennis for about 35 years). In the 18 months I spent in that role, we met one client who fell into my category, a tennis player. Only he had had a heart attack and did not play any more. He also golfed. He and the president got along just fine.
Ed Ackerman

Someone "designed" a hotel card that made a "non-golfer" curious.
Curious enough to do a web search. Isn't that three quarters of the job for a designer to make that type of thing happen?

Resume discussion...
MJ Walsh

I wonder if golf is used so much in business advertising because of its "demanding combination of focus, discipline, and Zen which makes the game fascinating--and such a resonant metaphor for businessmen," or because most businessmen play it. I don't think there's really any more focus and discipline needed in golf than most other sports. Certainly no more than Ping Pong, and probably a LOT less, but you rarely, if ever, see ping pong in business advertising (at least not in America). If every marketing douchebag (and believe me, you don't need to be under 30 for that alarm to go off) played ping pong instead of golf, we'd all be talking about what a great metaphor it is for business. The thing that makes golf work so well as an advertising tool is the varying and (somewhat) exotic locations. This helps it be perceived as not just a game, but a desirable lifestyle (i.e. ample free time, "success", argyle sweaters, etc.). I guess until ping pong matches are played on misty cliffs overlooking the sea, it doesn't have a chance.
Jonathan Hughes

I reckon if you need a step into golf (for fun, obviously since you've still got the rebelliousness going on, ha ha), I'd suggest trying the Wii Sports Edition with the family - all I'm saying is - you'll never know. :)
Jill Low

Does anyone at Pentagram golf?

I'm on Michael's team, and I golf. Although not very often, and not particularly well.

When you live in NYC, where land for golf courses, and closet space for golf clubs are limited, it's difficult to get out there very often and play. But I'd gladly volunteer to do so, for the good of the team, the next time we're trying to woo a client.
Josh B

Great subject Michael, I enjoyed the read...

I really believe on staying truth to yourself through out your life, but the older I get (28 now), I understand that there are things that sometimes you need to adapt to, or learn in order to advance or accomplished certain objectives. How soon I'll start with golf lessons?... maybe never... I don't want to become a golfer just for the business benefit of it. I'm still the guitar kinda guy, or the racquetball junkie... but who knows, maybe one day the bug for golfing will hit me... I guess I would just haste to force myself to learn something that is supposed to be enjoyable, for the fact that this could possibly open some business doors...

Juan Marin

Not a golf player either, but I read a bit about it in the sports pages.

"Someone named Phil Mickelson" is pro golf's perennial runner-up (though he's won a couple of major tournaments), and he seems to have a penchant for hazardous, risky shots that often sink his chances of winning. He's definitely not known for handling pressure in big situations - unlike Woods.

With that in mind, what does Marriot's PHILosophy imply? What's the brief behind this campaign?

"I don't think there's really any more focus and discipline needed in golf than most other sports. Certainly no more than Ping Pong ..."

Ah, I see I've not articulated my reasoning well enough, so let me try again. As this column is about golf, I'll modestly attempt to say again what's special about golf, and its 'focus, discipline, and Zen' character. Indulge me, as a deeply experienced designer and golfer.

Ping Pong is indeed a good example, for focus and discipline, but it's really the Zen part of golf that makes it almost unique, and certainly unusual in the world of mainstream sporting activities. What's so seductive about sports in general is the potential high of getting "in the zone" and transcending conscious deliberate action. This 'zone' is very difficult to reach, even for the world's best athlete's, but many of us have been there briefly -- perhaps some of us even get there during our designing hours. It's a direct parallel to the Zen 'no mind' state central to Zen practice and discussed at length by Musashi and Bushido scholars. Personally, I find it very similar to the creative trance that I often enter when I let myself go, stop struggling, and just try to let a good design idea come.

Why does golf have a special relationship to this zone (and hence have such a resonance for business)? It's because of the physical and mental dynamics of the game. It's the time pressure -- or more precisely the lack thereof. Most athlete's will tell you it's easier to get into the zone when you're just reacting and reacting fast. If you're returning a Roger Federer serve or trying to hit a Randy Johnson fastball you best not be doing a lot of thinking. But golf is very different. You've got all the time in the world. Time standing over the ball on the tee, or over a twisting, curving putt on a nasty green. This time allows monkeys to run wild in your head, and being able to muster the perfect combination of control and letting go becomes the real challenge -- and I believe it's this situation which is such a close analog to business management.

On a side note, real golf, for anyone who isn't John McCain's definition of rich, is not argyle sweaters and posh country clubs. It's public courses, $30-60 greens fees, hot, sweaty, grimy, and often torturously slow. It's far from a lifestyle game today -- it's not plush for the vast majority. But it's the addiction to the challenge that keeps golfers golfing.
Tom Dolan

and pentagram are corporate design shills anyway despite the so called phony stance of independence etc, so he might as well golf.

agree with two posters on how this has nothing to do with design. just a semi-famous (if you give a rot about this kind of thing) person in the "design" world jerking his chain.

clarence aurelli

The column is quite clearly about the enculturation of professionals; consider the second paragraph that speaks to the unspoken social rules of successfully 'being' a designer, rather than just learning 'design.' Mr. Beirut made no real pretense that golf (or other forms of professional culture) are an issue just for designers, so I don't think he warrants critique on those grounds.

As for Andy's comment there's something very soothing about living in a crowded metropolitan city and being able to spend a few hours walking around the picturesque greenery of a golf course I suggest we replace 'soothing' with 'privileged.'

Finally, Tom, while golf may offer a convincing metaphor for business management there is no a priori or 'natural' connection between golf and business, and you really could find convincing metaphors from any sport.

"there is no a priori or 'natural' connection between golf and business, and you really could find convincing metaphors from any sport."

Agreed, although I'd contend it's the cerebral, strategic, and emotional (as opposed to athletic) challenges of golf which make it 'connect' more easily to the out-of-shape, middle-aged businessman, who has a increasingly hard time picturing himself as a Tom Brady or Lebron James. Golf is the chess of sports, and while requiring an underappreciated amount of physical ability, it's still played competitively by those in their late 40s or even early 50s -- again a special connection to the CEO class.
Tom Dolan

That's actually a great point Tom; I'd never considered it - the skatepark or diving board may prove too embarrassing or simply functionally ill-suited for the aims of a client outing.

Michael, Man... life is too short. Do what you want to do. Don't think too hard about it, just do what makes you happy. If that includes skateboarding down the street in your boxers while juggling fruit, then do it. You were given creativity for a reason.

Bobbi Lewis

MB, Maybe you could start a jogger's circuit or join the local PTA?
Who needs cigar chomping men when there are plenty of corporate honeys who would love to hear you wax wine and typeface.

Per Pentagolfers: I have to assume Woody Pirtle plays/ played (Callaway = client)
felix sockwell

The bourgeois of a sport is the ratio of the size of the ball and the real estate required to play the game.

disc golf
better than golf

My favorite part of Michael's post was clicking on "big identity consultancies" and landing on Landor, and then the post from someone at Landor letting us know that only a few of them play golf. Great stuff.
Dave Anolik

Maybe Mr. Beirut should just accept that the fact that sometimes he loses jobs to other folks based on skill or something more tangibly relevant to the decision than whether anyone golfs. In these days of procurement driven outsourcing and Sarbanes-Oxley, I doubt whether the decision to hire an outside firm is made anywhere NEAR a golf course. But easier to blame it on something like golf than to accept the fact that sometimes other folks might be better (for whatever reason).

Count me in the: "pretentious designer talking about himself and not about design (or anything remotely related)" column.

Did you hear the joke about the Designer who got an MBA?

Me neither.

Thanks for the fun article. I know you are not a golfer and neither am I. The great thing about that is there are just as many of us non-golfers out there making decisions in a conference room or over coffee, as there are golfers on the golf course.

John Lucatorta

Jobs | July 18