I decided to play in the Red Herring NDA golf tournament in order to spend quality time — more than 30 seconds — in conversation with some VCs and entrepreneurs in the Internet scene. NDA is a conference where start-ups “debut,” and the playing experience mirrored the start-up life in more ways than one.
The sponsor is a little shy about sharing the total cost, but weekend green fees on this Arnold Palmer-designed course run up to $185, and there are more than 100 players. As the road show veterans say, “You do the math.”
About 30 teams of four are playing a scramble. In the spirit of the interdependent network economy, team members each take a shot based on the best ball one of their group hits. Like Sand Hill scenesters, you get to feign humility and say, “It’s all about the team” as everyone steps up to hit from your great drive.
My team includes Salesboy and Miss Fire. Salesboy’s competitive edge shows as we silently scheme to take this thing to the bank. Miss Fire’s interpretation of a collared shirt is a long-sleeve blouse off the Neiman’s rack. Salesboy and I grit our teeth. We’re going to have to carry it.
The men’s tees greet us with lawn poster advertisements, each matching a special conference theme — an innovation combining the worst of capitalism and bridal showers. I take advantage of the new gender benefit and play the ad-free women’s tees.
Salesboy and I slice and scull, respectively. We’ve got all the finesse of an over-funded team hacking at a half-baked business plan. Miss Fire heard that the women’s tees are gold, and she’s looking for one in her little bag. We gently nudge her toward the teeing ground. The resulting airball confirms our worst fears: She’s a newbie. Maybe even a brick-and-mortar type.
Just as we’re debating which foul drive to play, the organizers drive up with Sherman, the CEO. He seems like a CEO. Late, with an air of authority and befuddlement. He wears all the best golf duds and that completely-taken-care-of look. Salesboy is hopeful. “We’re saved,” he whispers.
Sherman wants to know, where does he hit the ball? We get him into place, our collective breath bated for salvation. Sherman’s elbow digs into his gut as he takes a two-foot, crooked backswing. Then he whacks at the ball like he’s in the midst an epileptic seizure. Salesboy exhales a little louder. “We’re not saved.”
Spastic swing after swing, divots flying, Sherman makes his mark on the course. We swallow our frustration and hilarity while he only gets more affable.
More sponsors show up on the eighth with extra balls and drinks. I’m starting to understand this game in Internet mode: Just land one or two great shots. There’s no time to stop and pick up the balls. You’re too busy collecting your wandering CEO and business strategy. There are plenty of balls, plenty of funders.
On a par 5 in the back nine, Miss Fire and Sherman are weaving around looking for their balls. Salesboy and I are on the green, starting to feel like camp counselors herding the troops, “C’mon, kids, this way to the next hole.” This must be why the PR people are making the big bucks these days.
Miss Fire obliviously drives over the dainty little “Carts” arrows set up to let you know when to get your cart back on the cement path. Sherman finds the hardest way possible, catching air as he heads down a series of grassy moguls. I can no longer laugh silently and drink in the absurdity of it all. He seems so serenely unaware. This guy was born to be an Internet CEO. Either that, or the second son of an English Lord.
After the hilarity dies down, something strange starts to happen. Salesboy begins nailing his drives. I’m chipping like chocolate. Miss Fire putts like a miniature golf champion.
And just when we’ve written Sherman off completely, he pulls an incredible shot completely out of his hat. Right down the middle of the fairway. We laugh like children.
The team plays on through the fading light. We don’t care any more and we perform better than ever. We play like Sherman: We don’t watch our shots, but discover our balls with delight as we drive up the course.
After three holes in the dark we stumble our way into the 19th in time for the booty. It’s our moment in the public market, to compare ourselves in the torchlight. We finished. We think we’ve saved face.
Then we see the unbelievably low scores on the tally board: 59, 63. My God, on a par 72? On this Internet Halloween, Callaway drivers are handed out to the winners, like so many Snickers bars.
Oh, well. We had a great time. We bonded despite ourselves. Then the organizers ask about the worst score. Someone admits to two under par. Salesboy announces we’ve done them seven better.
Wonder of wonders, we are each rewarded with a magnum of Veuve Clicquot. All the other tanned, weekend warriors seem willing to trade their scores for our champagne. “How can you reward the losers?” they want to know.
We laugh. It’s good to be an Internet company.