The rules of the game

In a piece in this month’s Golf Digest, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman argues that golf, not baseball, is the real national pastime.

Citing its individualistic nature, its open (i.e., democratic) tournaments and the egalitarian spirit of the handicapping system, he writes that golf “most deeply reflects the American character … and this is without question the greatest time ever to be an American golfer.”

Players in the Washington area are no exception. Quite the contrary. Members, staffers and lobbyists have more and better courses to play than ever before, as well as more opportunities to play.

When it comes to networking and forging business relationships, getting out of the city and being outdoors is more compelling than any of the alternatives downtown, according to a prominent financial-services lobbyist.

“Would you rather sit at La Colline for the 300th time or go play Whiskey Creek?” he asked, referring to an upscale, $95-per-round public course 35 minutes north of Washington.

The lobbyist, who frequently plays with clients and staffers, cited not only the camaraderie of the game but the time it requires. “If you’ve got a staffer in your cart and you’re talking for four hours, it’s a great way to break the ice,” he said. “There’s only a few places you have that much time. You find out about them, where they went to school, where they live.”

Ever since President Taft became the first high-profile presidential duffer, politics and golf have been linked not only in the public eye but also in the realities of day-to-day Washington business.

“Business on the golf course has been synonymous since the invention of both,” said political consultant Robert Hoopes, who also provides strategic communications for the United States Golf Association and several golf resorts.

But the course is no place for the art of the deal.

“It’s not that you say, ‘I’ll do this for you for $20,000,’” he explained. Rather, the game provides a unique “window into the soul and character of the people who play it. You see how they handle stress, how they treat partners and fellow competitors. … You can learn pretty quickly if someone cheats. … Are they unable to count to seven on a par-3?”

Everyone The Hill contacted for this story — most of whom requested anonymity — agreed that golf outings, by their very non-threatening nature, are primarily about forging relationships.

“You don’t get much business done at all on the course,” an entertainment-industry lobbyist said. “It’s about getting someone to take your call” the next week or the next month.

In fact, too much business talk can be frowned upon when your partners are more concerned with the break of their putts or a flying elbow on their backswings. “It’s poor form when people try to start actually lobbying when you’re trying to play golf,” he said.

This unwritten rule applies no matter where they happen to play. The proliferation of quality public courses around the suburbs in the past decade has given the downtown worker another option than a country club that requires a second mortgage. Still, plenty of lobbyists stick with the private-club routine, even though the initiation fees run between $50,000 and $125,000. Some of the most affluent Washingtonians even carry two memberships, one for their families and another purely for golf.

Jim Pitts of the lobbying and consulting firm DC Navigators recently joined the exclusive Members Club at Four Streams, in a remote section of Montgomery County, Md. “I’ve yet to experience what some of the other guys do, which is play a couple times a week and get to know clients,” he said of the course, which boasts barely 200 members. “It’s a great thing that I have yet to put into practice.”

But for true golf devotees, the location isn’t paramount, said another lobbyist in the financial-services industry. Although he’s a member at a well-regarded private club, he said, “If you really like golf, people will go out to Hains Point” from the Hill, referring to the unspectacular course at East Potomac Park.

Of course, some of the most important business that gets done on the golf course is with members of Congress themselves, often in the form of campaign fundraisers.

Several sources contacted for this story said there are more golf fundraisers going on than ever before (although, it seems, mostly by Republicans). Even members who don’t play golf host golf outings, such is the demand for them. In that case, the member will often station himself or herself at one hole, to greet the players as they pass through.

And to attract top donors, these are often on some of the country’s finest tracts of links land. Earlier this year, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) held a Las Vegas fundraiser at the $50 million Cascada Golf Club. On Monday, Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) is hosting an event at Caves Valley in Maryland, which hosted the U.S. Senior Open in 2002. The same day, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) has a tournament at the Landsdowne Golf Resort in Virginia. And on Aug. 2, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) is hosting a fundraiser at historic Pebble Beach Golf Links on California’s Monterey Peninsula.

As if that’s not enough of an attraction to potential donors, there’s the time you often get to spend with a member. Pitts said that, in an era bereft of soft money, “so much now is about personal relationships and with personal checks. … “I’m writing $25,000 to $30,000 in checks per cycle; I want to spend a little time with them.”

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) last month held a fundraiser at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in southwestern Oregon, with many attendees flying out in corporate jets. “That’s five hours with the senator on the plane and four on the course,” said one source who attended the outing. “Nowhere else are you going to get that kind of time.”

Thanks to the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, such trips are under more scrutiny than ever before. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) both have taken heat for accompanying Abramoff to Scotland on golfing junkets.

But according to Pitts, Washington’s power brokers have to spend their fundraising dollars somewhere, and it might as well be on the golf course. Otherwise, he said, “The next thing would be congressional pajama parties or whatever.”