In bad economy, CEOs don't want to be seen playing golf

Many CEOs have been shamed into playing less golf, or at least humiliated enough by their tanking public image to play their rounds on the sly.

"CEOs are golfing less … and those that are still golfing are probably talking about it less," says Steve Bennett, who retired as CEO of Intuit in December 2007 after being ranked by Golf Digest magazine as the ninth-best golfer among large-company CEOs in 2006.

Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of the CEO lifestyle than golf. A 2006 USA TODAY analysis of 115 golfing CEOs of large companies found 25 belonging to three or more country clubs at the same time. But an unscientific survey for USA TODAY of 163 CEO golfers by the CEO organization Vistage International this month found that 29% had reduced their rounds and another 11% have stopped playing altogether.

"It's a byproduct of bad economic times," says NetApp CEO Dan Warmenhoven, one of four who in 2001 paid $660,000 at a charity auction to play with Tiger Woods using Warren Buffett as caddy.

Many CEOs and CEO experts say image is largely at play. Just 25% of adults have a favorable opinion of CEOs in the June Rasmussen survey, the lowest of all professions surveyed, including members of Congress at 30%. Among other executives, only 14% have a positive view of CEOs, according to research released this month by Weber Shandwick.

Their sinking image has them parking their clubs even before they quit other activities that seem more time consuming and extravagant. Where it comes to golf, "CEOs have been in a fetal position for the last six months," says Ted Kennedy, president of CEO Challenges, which sponsors $1,000-a-day athletic events from sailing to auto racing, and in August is hosting a triathlon to crown the world's fittest CEO. But there has been zero interest in golf, and no events are scheduled for 2009.

Donations to charity suffer

Charity is a victim of this sudden radioactivity. Golf events raise about $3.5 billion a year, according to SRI International, and only $130 million of that was generated by professional tours. The rest came via 16,000 golf clubs that provide venues.

Hilary Fordwich, who once ran KPMG's global marketing, is now president of Strelmark Business Development Consultants in Washington, D.C. An avid golfer, she qualified for two Women's Southern Amateurs with a single-digit handicap, and her website is peppered with links to golfing sites and to her video interviews of pros, including Jack Nicklaus.

Fordwich regularly invites CEOs to golf fundraisers for charity, but when she recently approached the CEO of a large government contractor to sponsor a pro-am for the PGA's tour in support of the Melwood charity for the disabled, he declined. The company had participated in the past and was doing well in the current economic downturn. The only explanation was that the CEO did not want to appear in a public golf event, concerned about image at a time when Congress is sensitive to CEO excess, says Fordwich, who declined to identify the CEO or company.

The CEO, instead, invited Fordwich to a private golf outing. Golf was still played, only the charity suffered, Fordwich says. The public thinks the fundraising tournaments are "boondoggles," but this is how money is raised, she says.

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