Eric McPhail’s fun didn’t stop after he completed 18 holes. “When you play golf, you’re done, you play with four people, you walk in, you drink a few beers, you sit down at a table for four,” he explained. “One Sunday afternoon, you go out on deck, you sit with 15, 20 people smoking cigars, drinking a few beers.”
McPhail’s anthropological insights into the world of golf came in 2015 on the witness stand in a Massachusetts courtroom. A decorated amateur player, McPhail had between 2009 and 2011 extracted inside information from a golf buddy at his Boston-area home course, Oakley Country Club.
The friend was an executive at a nearby publicly traded clean energy company. MacPhail passed that advice on to five other members of the club — the Feds would even officially define the set in court documents as the “golf band” — who would strategically buy or sell shares of the company before the big news hits. .
Their profits would total more than half a million dollars. Although he did not trade a single stock himself, a jury ultimately convicted McPhail of insider trading with a judge later sentencing him to 18 months in prison.
Earlier this week, a former US congressman turned lobbyist, Stephen Buyer, was arrested for trading information about a mega telecommunications merger he allegedly received at a golf course. Two days later, Donald Trump hosted a New Jersey tournament sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a spectacle that tore apart the professional golf circuit.
Golf itself had become a surprise winner of the pandemic. New entrants and rounds counted skyrocketed as Americans discovered the ties were perfect for fresh air and social distancing. The sport’s governing bodies are desperate to project youth, inclusion, affordability and fun, themes that now seem distant as the latest headlines confirm that golf, especially in America, remains a safe haven for wealthy men sometimes emboldened to misbehave.
A round of golf should last about four hours. Yet only a few minutes of it hits full hits or burns out, leaving plenty of time to chew the fat. Two Wall Street financiers said the course was a place to discern the character of future trading partners or counterparties. “On 18 holes you can’t hide much in terms of personality and character,” said one. “The biggest tell-tale is how you act when you hit a bad shot.”
Stephen Buyer, the former congressman, apparently couldn’t get off the course fast enough. The buyer played golf in Florida with a T-Mobile executive in March 2018. Just a day after the trick, he began buying shares of Sprint, which T-Mobile was soon to acquire, illegally grossing $126,000 , said the Department of Justice. A lawyer for De Buyer said his stock trades were legal and that Buyer looked forward to being vindicated.
Golf’s most infamous insider trading scandal involves a man who, on the outside, doesn’t seem to need the money. 2012 golf champion Phil Mickelson owed a significant gambling debt to legendary Las Vegas sports bettor Billy Walters. Walters gave Mickelson advice on which stocks to trade, and the eventual profits helped settle his accounts. Mickelson would be named a “relief defendant” in a case against Walters and would not admit or deny his guilt, but would repay the government $1 million in profits and business interest.
Mickelson himself is now one of the faces of LIV Golf, the upstart golf league backed by billions from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Trump, whose checkered relationship with the game, is hosting two LIV tournaments this year. Trump had long maintained that golf remained just a “drawdown” activity. The game’s stewards, realizing that “aspirational” often only meant satisfying the old and decaying, tried to appeal to the likes of millennials (even LIV Golf wants to have an edge, adopting the slogan “Golf, but more strong “).
Driving ranges and miniature golf courses have been “gamified” and converted into nightclubs or sports bars with little resemblance to the previous heavy golf experience. Women, especially in business, are increasingly encouraged to play the game as a way to enhance networking opportunities.
Even ultra-exclusive clubs feel different in the modern world. Couples or families no longer spend all of Saturday in class. Instead, the leave sheets are filled out early in the morning and then they leave to answer work calls or transport the children to extracurricular activities. “The country club as a centerpiece of social life is over,” says golf historian and writer Bradley Klein.
McPhail had a good thing going at Oakley Country Club before his fall. He told the court that his low disability gave him great stature among the members and his friends effectively became his family. McPhail’s criminal defense lawyer, however, told the FT this week that less time on the golf course might have served him better.
“For some reason, businessmen seem to have their tongues loose as they approach the first tee,” said William Cintolo. “And it only gets worse as it goes – hole, hole, hole.”