x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Getting in the swing of things ? the Wall Street way

If no man is a hero to his valet, fewer still are held in any regard at all by their golf professional.

If no man is a hero to his valet, fewer still are held in any regard at all by their golf professional. You or I might imagine that we possess a silky swing, but a canny pro will detect a wrist too cocked or a knee too bent. Like dentists, they are best avoided, but occasionally they have to be consulted. Having rediscovered the game, I tired of standing on the tee and watching the ball go left and right, but seldom down the fairway.

I had the good fortune to find the world's most expensive golf teacher to put me straight. Mitchell Spearman is a fit man in his forties who has instructed some of the world's best golfers, including Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Laura Davies. For a price, upwards of US$2,000 (Dh7,340) for three hours to be precise, he will instruct you. If Tiger Woods fails to make a full recovery from his knee surgery, he might be able to eke out a tolerable living giving lessons, but for now, Mitchell is the man.

It is an absurdly small amount of money for such valuable instruction. But first you have to find him. He neither advertises, nor markets his services. He says rather quixotically that you "find him when you need him". This may sound a bit like something out of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, but then for some golf is almost a religion. It is also something that people enjoy spending money on. The implication is that the more money you spend, the better value you are getting.

Mitchell travels the world dispensing his priceless advice, but his home course is just an hour away from Wall Street. In his time he has instructed the great and the good including Dan Quayle, the former vice president ("a good golfer but backswing a bit short"), Kerry Packer, the late Australian media magnate, Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, casino boss Steve Wynn and many others. Mitchell helped Kerry Packer win the AT&T pro-am tournament at Pebble Beach. He also gave lessons to Mark McCormack, the former head of IMG, who on learning how much Mitchell charged per hour, asked him to make the buggy go faster as they drove to the practice ground.

He has also coached any number of Wall Street titans, including Dick Fuld, the former boss of Lehman Brothers, and Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch. They might have thought they were masters of the universe, but for Mitchell, they were middle-aged men who couldn't putt. He was a tutor to the great, each characterised by Mitchell with a pithy phrase. Like a Twitter entry, or that game where you have to describe yourself in five words, Mitchell can sum up everybody's swing he has ever seen. I didn't ask, but mine would probably be: "Gives the thing a big heave; dodgy putting stroke."

Few games reveal character like golf, so it is interesting to hear Mitchell on the Wall Streeters. For him, one bank stood out among all the others. "I grew to recognise bankers from Goldman Sachs," he says. "They had no sense of humour, took themselves very seriously, were on the phone every seventh shot, very disciplined and wrote everything down, and always took less club than they needed. They thought they were better than they were. And they always had the latest driver, because distance was their measurement of success."

Occasionally he would organise tournaments for banks or brokerages, and it would amuse him to listen to them in the bar afterwards, comparing scores. "I shot a 99," said one Wall Street legend. "Hell that's nothing," said another, "I shot 104." "I can beat the pair of you," scowled one man, puffing on a cigar. "147 and three-putted every green." Mitchell had to call them aside and point out that unlike Wall Street bonuses, the smaller the figure, the better the result. He taught them to compare the number of pars in a round, or if possible, the number of birdies. It was then that he learned a painful truth: some brokerages were willing to fudge the figures.

It is one of the appealing traits of golf that it is very much self-regulated - just like Wall Street was supposed to be. When you head off into the rough or bunker, nobody knows, except you, whether the good lie you have found is natural, or improved by a judicious prod of a club. But one bank who should remain nameless - Salomon Smith Barney - was found fudging the scores, fiddling the long-driving competition and doing everything in their powers to make sure they made off with the prizes.

This sort of thing should have convinced us that we should never have listened to the banksters, and that they should hand back all their ill-gotten loot, including the Pebble Beach long-driving cup, and be left with nothing but their finely honed swings. But that is not going to happen anytime soon. America is as ideologically driven as North Korea and at times as deaf to criticism. "You can look at how they behaved on the golf course and realise this is exactly how they were in the boardroom," says Mitchell.

He reports that although business from Wall Street is down, there is still a lot of demand for his services in the US. We shall know that the world's largest economy really is in trouble when Mitchell is on a sandy beach rather than Pebble Beach, with a frustrated golfer, persuading him that this time, if they only listen to his advice, the ball will go true. rwright@thenational.ae