There is no doubt in my mind that playing golf is becoming increasingly important to advancing one's career. Note that it is not necessary to be a "semi-professional" golfer but it is highly advantageous to be sufficiently good as to not detract from the experience of other golfers in the party. In essence, these means being able to hit the ball to the green (drive it reasonably well), know how to get out of a sand trap and being able to putt in without using up the rest of your six stroke maximum.
Now I have to admit that I am not a golfer yet I was still "required" to play at numerous tournaments and "best ball" type events with suppliers and my peer group. So - it is an investment in your career to be able to play golf well enough to enjoy the game.
Here are some key points about golfing with the boss or with a prospective client or any other very important person (VIP).
1. Never Give Advice
It doesn't matter if you are the best golfer in the city, state or country; do not offer advice to any other golfer in your party. If your advice is specifically asked for, then you may have little choice however rather than saying: "I think you are failing to keep your eye on the ball." which is entirely likely but will put the other individual on the defensive, try: "I am not sure, but I know my game seemed to get better when I tried focusing on the ball more during my swing...". The key here is to put your advice back on yourself and NOT on the other person. Let them decide whether they are going to use it or not. Do not give them advice!
2. Social Drinking
Remember the one hour rule. It is entirely appropriate for you to enjoy a drink on the golf course if it is allowed and there is a roving beer cart. This is a great opportunity to buy your prospective client a drink and engage in some relationship building. However - remember the one hour rule which states that you should never have more than one drink per hour unless you want to become intoxicated. When you are on the golf course with your boss or a VIP of some kind, you do not want to become intoxicated. Even getting a little silly is a bad idea. Stay sober and engage in social drinking only!
3. Respect Unrestricted Access
Another key point here is to honor and respect your opportunity for unrestricted access to the boss or VIP. This is not the time for 20 questions nor is it a time for you to demonstrate your world class intellect. So - do not pepper the VIP with every question under the sun about share options, market capitalization, the latest operational excellence initiative or any other corporate speak. If you have a question and the timing is right, well then by all means ask. Just be aware that it is not good form to turn your time with the VIP into a question and answer period.
The other side of that situation is also to keep your mouth shut. Remember that you have two ears and one mouth and that they should be used in direct proportion. You will learn far more by listening than by telling. Listen intently!
4. Don't Make Excuses
You may in all likelihood miss a shot or two. That is okay and a great opportunity for you to demonstrate your maturity. Don't feel it necessary to start making excuses or apologizing for your playing. This just demonstrates a lack of confidence. No one expects you to be tiger woods and your objective if you are not a keen golfer is nothing more than to have a good time and make a good impression. There is nothing wrong with either objective and so a flubbed shot deserves nothing more than a shrug.
5. Temper your Temper
There is nothing quite like losing your temper on the golf course to embarrass yourself and everyone else with you. What is it that you are taking so seriously anyway? Oh - your ego might get bruised eh? Let it. Nothing will bruise your ego so thoroughly as behaving like a two year old on the golf course.
6. Be Polite and Respectful to Everyone
This goes without saying but it is worth repeating anyway - that you must treat everyone on the course, in the clubhouse and the person driving the beer cart with the utmost respect. This is no time to play "big shot". (Actually there is never a good time to play "big shot", but especially not on a golf course.)
It is also appropriate to remember some basic etiquette such as not talking while someone is teeing up or putting.
In my experience, there is nothing in the business world that compares to golf in terms of providing opportunities to build relationships with important people. It is the gold standard of opportunity in North America.
However, there are a few other distant second place opportunities that you might want to consider. Fishing and hunting are two popular past times that are also configured as "corporate retreats" or opportunities for team building and the like.
Again - it is not necessary to be a professional fisherman to be able to participate in a fishing venture but it is helpful if you know something about the fish you are fishing for (salmon, trout, bass etc.), where you are fishing (lake, river, ocean etc.) and what kind of "gear" is appropriate. If nothing else, knowing enough to ask the right questions will keep you in the game. There is no need to pretend that you know more than you know. If you are not a regular fisherman, this will become very obvious about fifteen seconds after you have started. Don't worry about it and enjoy the time.
Hunting is bit more awkward because in many jurisdictions there may be requirements for licenses, firearms permits and other things. Typically however if someone has suggested this as a corporate activity, they will also take responsibility for ensuring that everyone invited can participate. Often this will mean hunting on a private reserve where there are exceptions to some of the rules etc. It is obviously critical if you do not know how to handle a firearm, to get instructions on how to do so safely.
I have also been on hikes, horseback rides and cooking classes as corporate off-sites and the options and opportunities are almost limitless. Chance are you'll be asked to play golf, but if this isn't an option for some reason, be sure to have a pastime of yours ready to offer up as a suggestion.
Volunteering seems to becoming ever more popular these days as a way for leaders, teams and whole organizations to bond. These sorts of activities can be anything from a cancer fundraiser to a "Corporate Challenge" for the United Way but all represent great opportunities to participate and to get to know VIPs in your organization better.
Some of these events are even grander in scale with people traveling to places like Mexico to build homes for the homeless. If you are interested in investing into this sort of career and relationship building exercise, make sure you are well equipped to go by having your passport up to date and having the right clothes and travel accessories available. International travel with VIPs can be a real bonding experience except when you show up at the airport with an expired passport or you drink untreated water somewhere you shouldn't and have to stay the entire trip in a restroom at the hotel. There are many website dedicated to international travel and I strongly encourage you to investigate these prior to heading for the airport with your boss.
There is one key tip though I can strongly recommend when traveling for business and that is keep things light. This is no time to be using all three pieces of your gargantuan luggage set. Ideally, you will be able to fit everything you need into a carry on but when this is not possible for whatever reason, a small valise with travel clothing is the way to go. Most people pack way too much for contingencies sake and to be honest, they would find it much easier and more pleasant to bring an extra few hundred dollars and buy anything they need when they get there, e.g. umbrellas, sweaters etc.
There is no doubt in my mind that the boss will be very impressed when you show up for a four day business trip (along with a bit of golfing) with a small valise when someone else has the 50 pound suitcase with everything in it but the kitchen sink. Who do you think is demonstrating the better judgement, decision making and prioritization skills?