It was the prize they all wanted: the chance to play a round of golf with Tiger Woods at his home course of Isleworth in Florida. Gathered at the Adare Manor hotel near Limerick one evening last July were some of Europe's most successful and wealthy businessmen, as well as golf stars Woods, Mark O'Meara, David Duval and Darren Clarke. After the dinner to celebrate the end of the JP McManus Classic Pro-Am golf tournament, they decided to have a little fun - and to raise some cash for good causes as well. By the time the auctioneer sat down, pounds 8 million had been donated to charity.
Among the lots on offer were tickets for Wimbledon, a specially commissioned piece of Waterford Crystal, and a painting by one of Ireland's greatest artists, Jack B Yeats. They went for decent money, but most of the huge sum raised came from golf.
A flag signed by Tiger from his US Open 2000 victory at Pebble Beach was bought by Dermot Desmond, the Irish financier, for nearly pounds 1 million.
Crazy sums were also paid for a portrait of the late US golfer Payne Stewart (golf art is never going to make it inside Tate Modern) and for David Duval's scorecard from the 1999 Bob Hope Classic when he shot 59. But it was 18 holes with Tiger that made the night. 'The bidding started at pounds 100,000 and went up pounds 200,000 a time,' said one guest. 'The atmosphere was electric, and when it reached pounds 700,000 O'Meara stood up and joked: 'If you are really that enthusiastic we'll throw in a lesson as well.''
The bidding went on until, at pounds 1.4 million, only one person was left: Joe Lewis, currency speculator, property tycoon and, with a fortune estimated at pounds 2.2 billion, Britain's fifth-richest man. Looking on, the 800 guests, who also included the likes of Robert Sangster, Alex Ferguson, Eddie Jordan, Michael Smurfit and Galen Weston, broke into spontaneous applause.
If ever there was proof of what Jeff Randall, the BBC's business editor and himself a golf nut, calls 'the new corporate masonry', it was the JP McManus event. For two days, boardroom heavyweights paid a small fortune to enter teams led by some of golf's best-known players. The event, hosted by the legendary multi-millionaire professional gambler and currency trader himself, raised pounds 15 million for charity. For the 130 present, most of them businessmen, it was a not-to-be-missed invitation: to play golf in a beautiful and secluded corner of Ireland.
Once, a night at the opera or a day at the races were sure-fire ways to a top executive's heart. These days it is golf. Golf is the new Establishment, supplanting membership of the freemasons or a St James's club as the must-have item for any aspiring mogul. Golfer Colin Montgomerie estimates that 50% of businessmen play the game - that's a formidable array of talent devoted to hitting a small white ball around with a stick.
The new masonry, the new Establishment - the new cool. When Richard Branson's concentration wavers in Virgin meetings he is no longer dreaming of flying round the world in a hot-air balloon but wondering how to improve his swing. When Gerry Robinson is not running the Arts Council or putting together billion-pound deals, he can be found on a golf course. Rocco Forte, whose hotel group was swallowed by Robinson's Granada, loves golf. So does Niall Fitzgerald and Lord Simon, both of Unilever.
Being rich and obsessed means senior corporates are often members of more than one club. Peter Burt, Bank of Scotland's chief executive, belongs to four - the Royal and Ancient, Muirfield, Gullane and Shiskine. Lord Simpson of GEC is a member of Royal Birkdale, the New Zealand Club, Gleneagles, Alyth and Rosemount in Britain and Pine Valley in the US. Sir Ronnie Hampel, the former ICI chairman, plays golf at St Andrews, where he is a member of the Royal and Ancient, Sunningdale, West Sussex, Trevose and Wisley.
Just one of these would be enough for most golfers, but Hampel has yet one more membership, at what is widely regarded as the best in the world: Augusta, home of the US Masters.
Hampel, who plays to a creditable 11 handicap, is a typically driven corporate golfer, taking up the sport fairly late in life (at 35) and bringing to it the same desire to succeed as he does in business. 'I became a fanatic,' says Hampel, now chairman of United Business Media and director of British Aerospace. 'I took up golf when my tennis handicap started to rise. I found it to be a relaxing antidote to the office. It could be competitive - most people in business are - and it provided relaxation and stimulus.'
From then on, says Hampel, wherever he travelled in the world, his clubs went too. 'It was fun because my handicap was coming down as a lot of my friends from university who were good golfers saw theirs going up. That appealed to the ruthless streak in me.'
Britain's best CEO golfer by a mile is Burt, 57, a three-handicapper and once the holder of the amateur record at Muirfield (one of his regular golfing partners is Eric Gleacher, the Wall Street dealmaker who featured in the bestselling book Barbarians at the Gate). Ask him why he plays golf and Burt answers with a rhetorical question: 'Why did I turn to banking?' Despite him putting golf on the same level as banking, you get the impression that one is a passion and the other a job that enables him to follow his love. In golf, he says, 'You are competing against yourself, nobody else - and every so often you hit a perfect shot and there is no reason, other than human frailty, why you shouldn't do it every time.'
The beauty of golf, though, is that you do not need to be anything like as good as Burt. Sir Clive Thompson, the Rentokil chief, plays at least three times a month, usually on Sundays, at either of his Kent clubs, Wildernesse, near Sevenoaks and Royal Cinque Ports at Deal. Now 58, he started playing seriously 20 years ago and got his handicap down to 10 (it is now 14). 'I like the whole thing,' says Thompson. 'There is competition, you can play with people of all sorts, you don't necessarily have to get on with them - you can, but it does not matter if you don't. You can play with low to high handicappers, you can play throughout your life.'
For business leaders, golf is an opportunity to get out of the office, away from the stress of work, from retinues of advisers and staff, to be more or less alone, minus the dreaded mobile (most clubs have strict no-mobile rules) for four hours at a time. They are also highly motivated, so although a leisurely stroll would be unacceptable, golf - a ramble with a purpose attached - is fine.
Chairmen and CEOs who indulge have become a mini-mafia, playing at each other's corporate golf days (it's a virtual given that if the boss plays, the company will host a golf day), sampling each other's courses, exchanging tales of missed putts, shanked chips and bunker hell. Conducting business on the course is a no-no - not least because a lot of time can be spent crawling through undergrowth looking for lost balls and players can go from tee to green without actually meeting up. And, besides, they are there to relax - not strike deals.
It is, though, an opportunity to observe someone under stress, to see how they perform under pressure. And it can also bring rivals closer together. 'You are with someone for four hours,' says Thompson.
'Normally they would have people with them, but on a golf course they're on their own. It's superb. You're with them for four hours watching and experiencing all their ups and downs.'
Because most major company headquarters are based in London, Home Counties courses are favoured locations, with three prestigious Surrey/Berkshire stockbroker-belt clubs hogging the cream of corporate Britain. Sunningdale, a club famous in golf for its fairway wagers, counts Forte, Lord Daresbury (chairman of De Vere), Sir Christopher Lewinton of TI and Allen Yurko, outgoing CEO of Invensys, among its members. Getting into Sunningdale is no mean feat - a membership application must be sponsored by eight members. Next door, Swinley Forest is, if anything, even more exclusive. It boasts Sir David Scholey, chairman of Close Brothers, Julian Ogilvie Thompson, chairman of Anglo American, and Sir Win Bischoff - although Swinley Forest is so discreet and so private that the word 'boasts' would be anathema to its board.
Nearby Wentworth's list includes Eric Nicoli, chairman of EMI, Crispin Davis of Reed Elsevier and the BBC's Jeff Randall. Julian Small, Wentworth's MD, confirms that '15 to 20 FTSE-100 chairmen are members here. It's a hotbed of executive golf.' He refuses to list them: 'Discretion is part of the appeal of Wentworth.'
Demand for company golf days never wavers, says Small. 'It is constant. It's an opportunity to say something about your company. People who come here continue to see golf as a vehicle to do business, it's a means of creating a stronger bond between people and their respective companies.'
But if you've never been on a corporate golf day, beware. 'They're usually good fun and an excuse to get out of the office,' says David Kneeshaw, CEO of marketing business Propeller, 'but it depends who you get teamed up with. There have been times when I've been delighted to slice the ball into a bunker, just to get away from my partner.'
All three of these historic clubs have waiting lists for membership.
A short trip round the M25, another club, however, is coming up fast and may be able to lay claim to be number one for CEO golf in Britain. Founded 10 years ago by Arlington, then the property arm of British Aerospace and now owned by its members, the Wisley Golf Club brought top-of-the-market US-style golf to Britain. Manicured and sculpted, with driveways for buggies, ponds teeming with giant carp, a clubhouse with a vast atrium, the course set new standards of luxury - and cost. To join, a golfer had to fork out pounds 35,000 for a share in the club and then pay an annual subscription on top (today's rate is pounds 2,850).
Wisley was looked down on as brash and nouveau, especially among long-established clubs. Today, its members include Bob Baumann of Invensys, Niall Fitzgerald, David Lloyd and Gerry Robinson. No club is more private: visiting societies and company golf days are not allowed (visitors can play only with a member), and nor are pro-ams and professional competitions, in which courses are closed to members.
But Wisley has adopted a refreshingly modern approach in other areas - which may explain its appeal to executives who have little time for hidebound rules or fussy protocol. Women members - and a few City high-fliers are on the roster - are treated absolutely equally. Dress codes are relaxed: members can walk round the clubhouse in their bare feet if they feel like it, and the sort of daft hot-weather rule that prevails at many golf clubs requiring knee-length socks to be worn with tailored shorts has no place here. 'We are one of the best-kept secrets in golf,' claims Andrew Lawrence, the club's general manager.
It seems that plenty of people, many of them leading business figures, are willing to pay pounds 35,000 to play golf. One or two, like Joe Lewis, do not flinch at paying pounds 1.4 million for a round with Tiger Woods. The attraction is the unique, levelling appeal of golf. As Colin Montgomerie puts it: 'Businessmen could never play tennis alongside a Pete Sampras any more than they could run alongside a Linford Christie.' However, not least because of the handicapping system, they can play golf with the top players and the two parties can mingle seamlessly. Whatever their standard, golfers will always speak the same language.
ACE OF CLUBS BOSSES WITH THE BEST FAIRWAY HANDICAP:
Peter Burt, RBS 3 Allen Yurko, Invensys 6 Keith Butler-Wheelshouse, Smiths Group 7 David Lloyd 8 Dinesh Dhameeja, e-bookers 9 Eric Nicoli, EMI 9 Sir Ronnie Hampel, UBM 11 Sir Clive Thompson, Rentokil Initial 12 Sir Rocco Forte, RF Hotels 13 Sir Win Bischoff, Citigroup 13 Brian Davis, Nationwide 15 Niall Fitzgerald, Unilever 24
Choosing the right club
Chances are that your chairman and chief executive already play, so if you want to get on, take up golf. 'There's no doubt that it's great for networking. A round of golf lasts five hours,' says David Kneeshaw, an enthusiastic 18-handicapper and CEO of marketing company Propeller.
A pounds 200 set of golf clubs and a few lessons with the pro at your local course will get you started (don't be tempted to teach yourself, say the experts, or your swing may never recover). But if you really want to impress you'll have to get the right kit (Callaway drivers at pounds 300 each, plus the compulsory Pringle knitwear), and even more importantly, join the right club. Corporate bigwigs play at Wentworth rather than Letchworth, St Andrews (above) rather than St Albans. If your social status won't stretch that far, you can buy your way into many newer clubs. They may not have the kudos, but the other members will be ambitious businesspeople just like you. One of the biggest changes in recent times is the growing number of female players. More and more professional women are discovering the career-enhancing effects of the game, even though the more traditional clubs have been slow to welcome them. If you're a woman and you want to take up the game, try a progressive, female-friendly club like Foxhills in Surrey.