Eric McPhail’s fun didn’t stop after completing 18 holes. “When you play golf, you finish, you play with four people, you go in, you have a few beers, and you sit at a table for four,” he explained. “Sunday afternoon, you go on deck, and you’re sitting with 15, 20 people smoking cigars, sipping a few beers.”
McPhail’s anthropological insights into the world of golf appeared in 2015 on the witness stand in a Massachusetts courtroom. McPhail, a decorated amateur player, between 2009 and 2011 extracted inside information from a golf friend at his Boston-area course, the Oakley Country Club.
The friend was an executive at a nearby publicly listed clean energy company. MacPhail passed these tips on to five other club members — the feds will even formally identify the group in court filings as the “Golfing Group” — who will strategically buy or sell stock in the company before the big news breaks.
Their total earnings amounted to more than half a million dollars. Although not a single share of the stock traded himself, a jury will eventually convict McPhail of insider trading with a judge who later sentenced him to 18 months in prison.
Earlier this week, former US Congressman-turned-lobbyist Stephen Bayer was arrested for circulating information about a massive telecoms merger he allegedly got on a golf course. Two days later, Donald Trump was hosting a New Jersey tournament sponsored by Saudi Arabia, a scene that was tearing up the professional golf circuit.
Golf itself has become a surprising winner of the epidemic. New entrants, and rounds that counted, reached heights as Americans discovered the connections were perfect for fresh air and social distancing. The sport’s governing bodies are desperate to highlight youth, inclusion, affordability and fun, topics that now seem far-reaching as recent headlines confirm that golf, particularly in America, remains a safe haven for wealthy men who sometimes dare to act poorly.
A round of golf should take approximately four hours. However, only a few minutes of that is to get a full dose or put it down, leaving plenty of time to chew on the fat. Two Wall Street financiers said the course was a place to discern the nature of future business partners or counterparties. One said: “Over 18 holes, you can’t hide that much in terms of character and personality.” “The biggest novel is how one behaves when one hits a bad shot.”
It looks like Stephen Bayer, a former congressman, couldn’t get off the track fast enough. Buyer played golf in Florida with a T-Mobile executive in March 2018. Just a day after the tour, he began buying shares of Sprint, which T-Mobile acquired shortly thereafter, illegally taking $126,000, it said. The Ministry of Justice said. Buyer’s attorney said his stock deals were legal and that the buyer was looking to be acquitted.
The most notorious insider golf trading scandal involves a man who on the surface does not need the money. Champion golfer Phil Mickelson in 2012 owed a large gambling debt to legendary Las Vegas sportsbook, Billy Walters. Walters gave Mickelson an inside tip about stocks to trade on and the bottom line earnings helped settle his accounts. Mickelson will be named a “relief defendant” in the case against Walters and will not plead or deny guilt but will return the government $1 million in trading profits and interest.
Mickelson himself is now one of the faces of LIV Golf, an innovative golf league backed by billions from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. Trump, who has his fickle relationship with the game, is hosting two LIV tournaments this year. Trump has long maintained that golf remains just an “ambitious” pursuit. The game’s hosts realized that “ambition” often meant only catering to the elderly and decadent, and they tried to appeal to millennial tastes (even LIV Golf wants to have an edge, espousing the motto of “golf, but louder”).
The driving ranges and mini golf courses have been “stimulated” and outfitted as nightclubs or sports bars with little resemblance to the previous terrible golf experience. Women, especially in business, are increasingly encouraged to play the game as a way to enhance networking opportunities.
Even very exclusive clubs feel different in the modern world. Spouses or families no longer spend the whole Sabbath in the course. Instead, loaded sheets are filled early in the morning and then you leave to answer work calls or take the kids to extracurricular activities. “The country club has ended as the centerpiece of social life,” says golf historian and writer Bradley Klein.
McPhail had a good thing at Oakley Country Club before his downfall. He told the court that his low disability gave him a high position among the members and his colleagues effectively became his family. However, McPhail’s criminal defense attorney told the Financial Times this week that spending less time on the golf course might have worked better for him.
“For whatever reason, businessmen seem to have loose tongues when they get to the first tee,” said William Centolo. “And it gets worse as it goes on — pit, pit, pit after another.”