Sitting around a conference table at the headquarters of Clark Construction Group recently, employees of the company's business development...

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Sitting around a conference table at the headquarters of Clark Construction Group recently, employees of the company’s business development and technology departments took turns in the confessional.

The issue: golf.

The counselor was Hilary Bruggen, a workplace consultant and business-golf expert hired to teach Clark employees how golf can be an important business tool.

Whether their employees are avid golfers, neophytes or liken the tee box to “Fear Factor,” companies like Bethesda, Md.-based Clark hope a lunch hour of golf therapy with Bruggen can bring even the most timid into the fold — and help the bottom line.

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People who don’t play golf are “choosing to neglect the best business development there is,” Bruggen told the group, describing how four hours on a golf course — away from e-mail, computers and ringing phones — can make or break a business deal. She heard from each of the 24 Clark employees about their attitudes toward the game, ranging from avid hobby to necessary evil, then offered pointers.

A way to get ahead

Don’t force the business discussion, she said, and don’t whine about a poor shot. She counseled women not to dress too feminine or outfit golf bags with too many frills.

“Many of our clients do business on the golf course. It is just good business development to be involved in these networking groups,” said David Golden, Clark’s chief information officer.

Golf has long been a pursuit of the business elite. The golf course is the place for executives to recruit corporate directors, or for the head of law and accounting firms to test the mettle of potential partners.

But now, golf is promoted as an important strategic tool for mid-level managers looking to advance, and even for business students. Golf is also becoming more popular among women looking to compete on the same plane as men.

Of 401 executives surveyed for a Starwood Hotels study in 2002, 92 percent said golf is “a good way to make new business contacts,” while 97 percent said golfing with a business associate “is a good way to establish a close relationship.” Forty-three percent of executives said some of their biggest business deals were made on golf courses.

University of Maryland students this fall will be able to earn three credits as they learn how to schmooze with potential employers, clients and executives.

In the “Golf: For Business and Life” course, students will spend the semester in lectures by area business leaders, and, of course, on the greens.

“The goal is when you finish the semester, the person can go out and play a respectable round of golf,” said Jeff Maynor, director of golf for the university.

Ethics taught, too

In the course, students will hear how to interview or be interviewed while golfing, and to understand that ethics on the golf course are much like ethics in the workplace.

“If you cheat in golf you cheat in business,” Maynor said.

“I’ve had a talk with women students about what [golf] can provide at senior levels or even middle management,” said Janet Richert, managing director of the Office of Career Management at Maryland and former senior vice president of Hoffmann-La Roche, a pharmaceutical company.

“I didn’t start playing golf until rather later in my corporate career. I don’t think it advanced me, but it puts you in the scene … that is where trust is built. The trust that provides you with the foundation to deals or agreements.”

At many golf outings, chatter of recently closed deals and new partners can be heard between swings at the little white ball.

“It’s one of those things where people get out, are comfortable and get away from everything,” said John Sanders, chairman of the Washington, D.C., Technology Council. “You can learn a lot about people.”

A changing environment

Golf’s place in business has not been without problems. Minorities have been barred from courses. Women were — and still are — kept off some courses, or allowed to play only during off-hours on weekends.

Allison Schieffelin sued her employer, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, saying she was “denied promotions on the basis of sex [and] has been subject to discriminatory terms and conditions of employment,” according to court documents. Schieffelin accused Morgan Stanley of discriminatory practices, including “men-only golfing outings.”

The company settled the class-action suit for $54 million last year.

In 2003, the women’s research organization Catalyst surveyed 705 women in Fortune 1000 companies about what they thought was holding them back at work. More than 40 percent said “exclusion from informal networks.” One of the most mentioned informal networks was golf.

Many more women than men avoid playing golf because they fear a bad game will cost them clients. Some programs are aimed at remedying that.

The Fairfax (Va.) County Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Business Council sponsors the “Power of Golf,” a 10-week course for women on the rules and fundamentals of the game and how to talk business on the greens.

“Women who can’t golf don’t, men who can’t golf do,” said Bruggen, whose full corporate golf-counseling sessions cost about $10,000.