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Fixing Malcolm Gladwell's Shank

Jay Karen, NGCOA CEO

I saw Malcolm Gladwell deliver a keynote speech at an annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives years ago. He was very insightful. I read Blink. I read Tipping Point. I read Outliers. I’ve enjoyed how he analyzes the world and its intricacies, patterns and phenomena from interesting points of view. After hearing his recent podcast episode of Revisionist History, in which he attempts to turn “golf” into a pejorative word, my admiration is wavering. I encourage readers to listen to the podcast. For someone who metaphorically hits the ball pretty well, Gladwell shanks this one.

With Revisionist History, Gladwell claims to journey through “things overlooked and misunderstood.” But this episode isn’t just an attempt to shed light on something obscure. He has a specific agenda. At the 2 minute and 44 second mark, he delivers the smuggest smuggery I may have ever heard about golf: “I hate golf...and hopefully by the end of this, you’ll hate golf too.”

The origination of Gladwell’s contempt for golf is his claim that all of the joggers in West Los Angeles are forced to run on a tiny, gravel path between the road and the chain-link fence that surrounds Brentwood Country Club. Gladwell comes to this eureka moment while staying in the pool house of his local friend, when he visits LA. This paucity of running space is apparently due to the fact that the fenced-in, private Brentwood Country Club has the audacity to 1) be fenced in, and 2) encroach on the space where joggers want to jog. He then wonders with podcast guests, after implying Los Angeles residents are suffering from some kind of park-deficiency syndrome, what it would take to make the golf club a public park. Gladwell fails to mention that over half of Los Angeles’ low-income and medium-income residents are within a 10-minute walk of a public park - a much better standing than many other major cities in America. Only the well-to-do of LA - and the well-do-guests of the well-to-do - suffer from this terrible plight of not being near a public park.

Gladwell goes on to lament that golf courses are wasteful: they take up too much land, drench themselves in chemicals, and can even use up to 389 truckloads of sand to rebuild their bunker complexes (a seriously hasty generalization, by the way). He stereotypes avid golfers by stating a “fact”: “Rich people really, really like it. They’re obsessed with it.” And that there “really is no parallel for ordinary people.” Ordinary people? What Gladwell overlooks (ironically, considering the purpose of his podcast) is that golf is an egalitarian recreational activity, 80% of which is enjoyed on public golf facilities (including 2,500 municipal facilities from coast-to-coast) by over 23 million Americans, and the average green fee in the US is $37. So much for golf being an elite, rich-man-only game. He also fails to mention that Los Angeles operates thirteen municipal golf courses and 92 miles of walking, biking and hiking trails. I’m not sure any local municipality in the United States operates more public golf courses than LA. So much for the need to turn Brentwood Country Club into public-use space.

The podcast moves on to criticize corporate CEOs for playing too much golf. Gladwell’s claim is buoyed by one person’s obsessive research about the frequency with which some CEOs play the game. The assertion is based on 20% of the top 1,500 CEOs of publicly traded companies being obsessed enough to keep a USGA handicap. Of those 367 CEOs, the average number of recorded rounds of golf is 15. The top ten percent of the sample play 37 rounds or more per year. Gladwell translates this to about 160 hours spent on the golf course. The equivalent of five and a half weeks of work (he says)! Gladwell implies this is a waste of time just through the tone of astonishment in his voice. Gladwell further misunderstands - again, ironically - that these rounds of golf could very well have been played on weekends, the days when avid golfers are more likely to play and outside the typical work week. And by the way, how many hours per week is a CEO “on the job”? I would imagine CEOs of large corporations, with endless functions to attend, countless emails waiting for response, tomes of reports and materials to read through, hours of presentations to run through or rehearse, staff meetings, board meetings, business meals, etc. are almost always “on the job.” Is it really a big deal that the most avid golfers may play every weekend?

Another thing Gladwell doesn’t understand is the fact that many business deals and connections are made on the golf course; that four hours spent on the course from a business standpoint is really no different than four hours collectively spent over lunches or dinners with clients, employees, etc. Also, I would bet a CEO’s salary that most golf played by CEOs has some business angle or component to it. His assumption is that these CEOs are apparently out for wasteful joyrides when they play golf. Many Americans find social and economic success in part due to the use of golf as a relationship-builder with clients, colleagues and bosses. I’ll argue there is no better method of engagement and observation of peers and business associates than through a round of golf, whether it’s a high-end private club, or on a daily-fee course during a charitable outing.

And finally in this segment, Gladwell calls golf a “dangerous habit,” due to a correlation (not causation) he draws between rounds of golf played by CEOs and poor performance of the company. Is golf really the culprit when it comes to poor performance, or is it that the CEO is just ineffective? That would be like blaming the video game for the poor academic performance of kids who like to play video games. He calls golf “crack cocaine for rich white guys,” contending that golf is a self-destructive addiction. To complete his profiling, Gladwell makes example of one CEO among 1,500 CEOs of publicly-traded companies. The crescendo in this segment is when he nearly falls off his chair in shock that the worst “abuser” of this study of CEOs played 148 rounds in a year.

Gladwell then questions property tax law that applies to golf courses, in particular Proposition 6 that passed in California in 1960. He attacks non-profit golf clubs for the audacity to band together and seek tax reform to prevent them from being forced out of existence, due to the “highest and best use” standard at the time for tax assessment. By 1960, dozens of golf courses had been taxed out of existence for being taxed as high-end residential or commercial instead of park or recreational. Gladwell makes it seem as though all the California bourgeoisie made this happen through clever lobbying (calling in Bob Hope to help the cause), when in fact it was a constitutional referendum, voted upon by the citizens of California - and by a margin of 68% to 30% in favor. And it was Hope’s wife, Delores, who was making the case to the legislature and voters to pass Prop 6. She cited the need to protect the greenspace that also doubled as an effective stimulus for the California economy.

Eighteen years later, Proposition 13 was passed by Californians, which preserved tax assessment values at 1% of the cash value of the land at the time and capped tax increases. Under Prop 13, assessment value would only change if there was a change in ownership of the land. Prop 13 wasn’t just for golf courses - it was for all California property owners. Furthermore, in 2010 a court addressed the argument that the local private clubs had indeed changed ownership, because the members or shareholders of the clubs in 2010 were not the same members or shareholders in 1978. The court denied that change of ownership claim, and Gladwell calls this a “third gift from God” for the private clubs.

Gladwell brings in a philosophy professor and invokes the Ship of Theseus paradox, to attempt a pretty creative explanation as to how a club’s ownership changes as the members change. The paradox of Theseus asks the following question: while sailing across a sea, if Theseus replaces each and every plank of his ship, is it the same ship when it arrives at the destination, or is it a new ship? Gladwell implies that because the members of a club in 2010 were not the same members of the club in 1978, the ownership has essentially changed - and the club should be reassessed based on Prop 13. But, what Gladwell misses is that the members of the club do not own the land themselves - the non-profit entity of the club (i.e. Brentwood Country Club “non-profit inc”) is the landowner, and that hasn’t likely changed since the original purchase.

It seems Gladwell would not be so frustrated about this, if there was more or ample public park space for the citizens of Los Angeles. Los Angeles County has 37,405 acres of parkland (this includes the 16,000 managed by the city of Los Angeles), with Griffith Park being largest with 4,282 acres. New York’s Central Park is only 843 acres. Nevertheless, as noted by a podcast guest, the green space in the most affluent areas of Los Angeles are either golf courses or cemeteries, and this grates at Gladwell’s sensibilities. It struck me as quite elitist of Gladwell to even be arguing his case - a rich guy, jogging in a rich area, wishing he could jog on the pretty property across the street and behind the fence. By the way, Will Rogers State Park (only a couple of miles from his friend’s house) has 4.1 miles of trails on which Gladwell could enjoy a jog.

Gladwell might be careful about what he seems to wish for: that Brentwood Country Club and those like it become public space, or be taxed at highest and best use. First, while the property tax revenue from the clubs might be lower than desired by Gladwell, the land would surely be a financial burden to the local government, if it became parkland. As government-owned land, it would likely cost six or seven figures to maintain every year. Will the city or county raise tax rates on the rich, middle class or the poor to maintain more acres beyond the 37,405 it already has? And if you’re going to argue that Brentwood Country Club should be taxed at “highest and best use,” then the landowner should have the zoning that would allow it to sell for commercial or residential purposes. In other words, if you’re going to say a country club’s land is worth $5 billion and tax it as such, then the members of that club should have the ability to actually sell it for $5 billion to a commercial developer. And there goes your public space idea, because there is no way the county or city would pay billions to have a neighborhood park. Also, all the property that abuts golf courses could kiss their heightened values goodbye, if those golf courses were sold to commercial or residential developers. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for large landowners of green space to receive some kind of unique treatment under tax law or conservation easement programs as incentive to preserve in perpetuity the land as open space, even if sometimes access to the land isn’t public. Such programs allow for valuable pieces of land to be permanently preserved and never developed in a landscape that is progressively being turned into condo buildings, shopping centers, housing developments, corporate parks, etc.

Imagine this scenario: a group of local residents comes together to create a non-profit, community garden association. They acquire five acres of land on which to farm the tomatoes, asparagus and kale they and their families would enjoy. Would Gladwell argue the land should be taxed as though a $15 million mega-mansion or a $500 million skyscraper was sitting on the land? I doubt it. It’s a harmless, fenced-in garden, after all. In fact he seems astounded, in his own hypothetical example earlier in the episode, that planting a garden on a one-acre plot in Manhattan would yield a tax bill as though a high-rise building was sitting upon the land. “Highest and best use” taxation policies can drive homeowners and certain types of businesses off the land. Land valuation, assessment and tax laws are very complex for a reason: they bend and swerve to allow for continuing use and ownership of land with regard (not without regard) to what might be happening on that land.

What Gladwell is doing, by arguing against the tax laws that apply to golf courses in Los Angeles, is playing judge and jury to what is highest and best use of land. And this without regard to the positive impact golf has on communities and economies. As an example, through the game of golf, more money is raised for charities ($4 billion annually) than the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB combined. The industry impacts 2 million jobs in the United States. But he hates golf, so Gladwell will find it hard to see land used as recreation by “rich white guys,” (which he says repeatedly) who care for and benefit from the property, as best use.

After further contemplation and wider inspection of the issue, I wonder if the revisionist historian would ever revise his own perspective on golf. Better yet, Mr. Gladwell, let me know when and where your travels take you, and I’ll meet you at a course for a round of golf together. We can subsequently discuss the virtues of spending four hours together, in a beautifully preserved surrounding, getting to know each other in ways you might not expect. Then multiply that experience by over 23 million, for all the Americans who play the game each year. Then, you might get a better sense of how egalitarian and pretty wonderful this centuries-old activity is. Maybe we’ll even discuss philosophy and tax policy.

To comment on this story, please click over to LinkedIn.

Sources:

The Trust for Public Land, ParkScore Index

Southern California Golf Association

UC Hastings

California Tax Data

California Department of Parks and Recreation

We Are Golf


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