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Fifteen years ago, maybe less, the corporate world was gaga over golf. CEOs with single-digit handicaps and a couple of fancy memberships were as plentiful as wetlands in Myrtle Beach. The golf media, including us, filled pages and airtime with features about the people who ran the businesses you used and were aficionados of the game.

Fifteen years ago it was cool to say you played golf. Tiger was hip. Everyone wanted to be on the golf bandwagon because the golf bandwagon was on a roll.

Now? Well, Tiger isn’t so hip. Shareholders don’t want to read about their CEO’s nifty golf game when stock prices are trying to work their way out of a fried-egg lie in the bunker.

Right now, it’s just not as cool for business executives to admit they play golf.

“Of course they’re playing, they just don’t want anybody to know about it,” one CEO of a local company says of his brethren. “It’s not good business, and it’s not good for the morale of your employees. They’ve seen job cuts, wage cuts, benefit cuts and you’re out playing golf? That’s not a very good idea.”

If you’re the top dog of a company that has laid off workers, the last thing you want to do is publicize that you’re a good golfer. So most CEOs have put the word out to their front-line PR people: No interviews about golf.

Congress is the same way. Try getting an elected official to smile into a camera and talk about breaking 80 for an interview that will be beamed back to the home district. Not with budget deficits, health-care debacles, wars and, most importantly, mid-term elections on the agenda.

GolfStyles used to publish a monthly column called “Hackers on the Hill,” dedicated to inquiring about congressional golf games. Now those inquiries get the “thanks but no thanks” reply.

No sport needs a good PR agency like golf, someone to promote the fact that the game hasn’t lilted back to the sport of kings. It hasn’t. Municipal course tee sheets are still full. The upscale courses that provide the conditions and service are at least holding their own and some are thriving.

No one begrudges the corporate executive on his golf game. OK, maybe we don’t want to read about him jetting off to his membership at a national club like Augusta or Cypress Point.

And the ones who show up on lists of America’s best executive golfers with a +2 handicap might draw some suspicion. Good golf takes time – time shareholders feel could be put to better use.

Will it ever again be a good idea?

“A lot is going to have to change for big-time executives to be so open about playing golf,” another CEO says, also asking that his name not be used. “This economy has to turn around and stay turned around for that to happen. Once people feel safe in their jobs and have a little extra money in their pockets, everything will go back to close to what it was.

“But how long will that take? I don’t know. Look at the private clubs and look at the public courses. They’re all hurting because we’re nowhere near where we need to get back to. The CEOs are still playing, but they’re quiet about it.” – Drew Markol

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