All I Really Know About Professionalism I Learned in Golf


You probably recall Robert Fulghum’s popular book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which was first published in 1988. Its premise was that the world would be a better place if we simply adhered to the basic rules of kindergarten, such as sharing, being kind to one another, cleaning up after ourselves, etc.

If I had the opportunity to suggest a sequel specifically for lawyers, its title might be All I Really Need to Know about Professionalism I Learned on the Golf Course. As golf stands out from other sports as a “gentleman’s game,” the ideals of professionalism in the practice of law are aimed at ensuring our field remains a “high calling” and not “just a business like any other,” enlisted in the service not only of the clients, but of the public good as well.

The game of golf is governed jointly by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) of St. Andrews, Scotland, and the United States Golf Association (USGA). But, as stated in the USGA’s “The Spirit of the Game” document, “Unlike many sports, golf is played, for the most part, without the supervision of a referee or umpire. The game relies on the integrity of the individual to show consideration for other players and to abide by the Rules. All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. This is the spirit of the game of golf.”
Likewise, the American justice system is governed by our courts, from the U.S. Supreme Court on down. But much of what lawyers do on a daily basis is not in the courtroom or under the direct supervision of a judge. As officers of the court, we each have a duty to self-regulate our daily practices to—as declared in the Mission Statement of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism—”exercise the highest levels of professional integrity in their relationships with [our] clients, other lawyers, the courts, and the public and to fulfill [our] obligations to improve the law and the legal system and to ensure access to that system.”
If you apply each component of “A Lawyer’s Creed,” developed by the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism (the Commission), to the ideals of integrity in golf—and vice versa—the similarities between the game and the practice of law are even more striking.

To my clients, I offer faithfulness, competence, diligence, and good judgment. I will strive to represent you as I would want to be represented and to be worthy of your trust. Do you remember how hard law school was? Learning how to play golf can be equally difficult. Once you’ve learned the basics, improving your game and maintaining a standard high enough to enjoy playing can be even more challenging. Many times, you’ll feel like quitting. As in practicing law, golf takes a lifetime of hard work, concentration, training and patience to stay at the top of your game. In golf and in our law practices, we are always seeking to improve.

Everyone knows Tiger Woods, but do you know who Sean Foley is? Only avid golf fans are aware that Sean Foley happens to be the guy who (at present) teaches Tiger how to play golf. Yes, Tiger Woods, the world’s current No. 1 player, takes golf lessons. So does Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson. So did Jack Nicklaus and most every great golfer you’ve ever heard of.

Admittedly, the sessions Tiger has with his teacher might not look like the lessons a beginning golfer would take from the local club pro. In the ever-elusive pursuit of the perfect golf swing, Tiger and other professional golfers are in a constant state of fine-tuning the near-perfect.

In the golf grill at Torrey Pines, engraved in the slate above the fireplace, Geoffrey Chaucer is paraphrased: “The lyfe so short, the game so longe to lerne.” The point is that, no matter one’s experience and expertise, we never stop learning, whether in golf or in legal professionalism, we never stop learning. That is why we are required to take professionalism CLE credits on an annual basis. The Commission approves and oversees more than 500 professionalism CLE sessions per year and produces the curricula and materials for those sessions. The Commission expanded its focus to include judicial professionalism by assisting the Institute of Continuing Judicial Education in developing programs on professionalism for Georgia judges.

To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity and civility. I will seek reconciliation and, if we fail, I will strive to make our dispute a dignified one. Temper tantrums and other demonstrations of “unsportsmanlike conduct” have no place in the legal profession, or on the golf course.

The great Arnold Palmer tells this story: “In the final of the Western Pennsylvania Junior when I was 17, I let my putter fly over the gallery after missing a short putt. I won the match, but when I got in the car with my parents for the ride home, there were no congratulations, just dead silence. Eventually my father said, ‘If I ever see you throw a club again, you will never play in another golf tournament.’ That wake-up call stayed with me. I haven’t thrown a club since.”
“Throwing clubs, sulking and barking profanity make everyone uneasy. We all have our moments of frustration, but the trick is to vent in an inoffensive way. For example, I often follow a bad hole by hitting the next tee shot a little harder—for better or worse.”
At the end of a round of golf, the members of the foursome shake hands with one another, even if someone if your foursome soundly beat you in the round. It honors the game and your opponent. Likewise, following a trial, adversaries shake hands, regardless of the outcome. I have never had a problem shaking the hand of my able adversary when he or she has conducted himself or herself with integrity and professionalism throughout the litigation. It honors our justice system and your opponent. As Shakespeare wrote in “The Taming of the Shrew,” “do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.”
To the courts, and other tribunals, and to those who assist them, I offer respect, candor, and courtesy. I will strive to do honor to the search for justice. In other words, play by the rules at all times. The R&A states, “. . . we are reliant upon our own honest adherence to the Rules in order to enjoy the game. As a result we are all occasionally forced to call a penalty on ourselves for infringements which, often, will go unnoticed by everyone else.”
The top golfer of the first half of the 20th century was none other than Atlanta’s Bobby Jones. He won 13 major championships and, if not for his own integrity, would have won another. In the first round of the 1925 U.S. Open, Jones was about to hit a shot out of the rough on the 11th hole at Worcester Country Club near Boston. As he took his stance, the head of his club brushed against the grass and caused a slight movement of the ball. No one saw this except Jones.

After taking the shot, Jones informed his playing partner, Walter Hagen, and the USGA official accompanying their match that he was calling a penalty shot on himself. Hagen and the official tried to talk him out of it, but he insisted he had violated the rules and took the penalty stroke. In what other sport would a situation like this take place?

Had Jones carded a 76 in that first round instead of a 77, he would have ultimately won the championship by one stroke. The penalty forced him into a playoff, which he lost. Jones was praised by sports writers for his honesty, to which he was reported to have replied, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”
To my colleagues in the practice of law, I offer concern for your welfare. I will strive to make our association a professional friendship. In golf, proper etiquette is just as important as competency, and often more so. For example, you remain still and silent when your fellow competitors are taking their shot. And when on the green, you don’t walk in their putting line between the ball and the hole. You congratulate others’ good shots and refrain from laughing at their bad ones.

The R&A says, “All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be. Etiquette is an integral and inextricable part of the game, which has come to define golf’s values worldwide.”
As in the practice of law, time is a valuable commodity in golf. Show up promptly for your tee time. Maintain an appropriate pace of play, and let faster players play through. In short, show consideration to others at all times—whether on the course, in your office or in the courtroom. When in doubt, refer to the Golden Rule.

To the profession, I offer assistance. I will strive to keep our business a profession and our profession a calling in the spirit of public service. In golf, this is called taking care of the course. In the fairway, replace your divots. On the green, repair your ball mark and one more that someone else failed to fix. After hitting from the sand, rake the bunker completely. You do these things not to help yourself but to leave the course in the same or better condition for the golfers behind you.

Attorneys are called into the profession of law to serve others. At the recent launch of the second annual Georgia Legal Food Frenzy to fight hunger, I used Supreme Court of Georgia Justice Robert Benham’s recollection that when he was a little child, each morning at the breakfast table, his father would first ask, “What are you going to do today?” His next question was always, “What are you going to do for someone else today?”
To the public and our systems of justice, I offer service. I will strive to improve the law and our legal system, to make the law and our legal system available to all, and to seek the common good through the representation of my clients. The raging issue in golf these days is over the R&A and USGA’s decision to ban the use of the long putters that some players anchor against their bodies to steady their putting stroke, much to the chagrin of many successful players on the professional tour who use those long putters. But regardless of how that matter is resolved, protecting and improving the game is the ultimate responsibility of those who play the game. The same is true for the legal system. We are, after all, in this together.

When making the case for the unified State Bar in 1963, Georgia Bar Association President H. Holcombe Perry said, “It has been pointed out that in relation with the public the Bar has always been and always will be a unit. The actions and sayings of one lawyer reflect credit or discredit on the rest of his professional brethren in the eyes of the public. The interests of all lawyers are inextricably woven together. Through such an organization, with all lawyers participating, we will come to have a better appreciation of the fact that we are all members of a great and honorable profession of which we should be proud, a more adequate understanding of our mutual problems, a keener knowledge of our faults and our virtues, with a mutual determination to eliminate the former and preserve and enhance the latter; and finally we will have the opportunity of establishing among ourselves a sense of brotherhood, mutual respect and trust and through all of this to strive diligently to improve the administration of justice in our state.”
There is, of course, one huge difference between golf and legal professionalism. Golf is just a game. For most of us, a good day or a bad day on the course won’t be life-altering. That is not the case in our law practices. We are responsible for protecting the rights of our clients. Many times, the outcome of our work can have life-changing consequences. No one is perfect, and winners and losers in the legal system are often determined by circumstances we cannot control. But lawyers must always bring our “A” games, and when it comes to professionalism, we would do well to incorporate golf’s lessons of honesty, integrity and courtesy into our service to the public and the justice system.

A closing thought: Many of us whose favorite avocation is playing golf have no doubt fantasized about trading in our day jobs for a career of fame and fortune on the professional tour. But consider that the aforementioned Bobby Jones, the most accomplished golfer of his era who later co-founded the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, never turned professional.

In fact, Jones retired from competitive golf all together at the age of 28 in favor of his chosen profession: Georgia lawyer.

Robin Frazer Clark is the president of the State Bar of Georgia and can be reached at

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