On the green and in business, discipline trumps trendiness

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R ick Smith was proud and honored last month to receive the vaunted Henry Johnson Fisher Award for lifetime achievement in the magazine business. As editor-in-chief and chairman of Newsweek, Rick sets the agenda for the entire magazine.

Washington Post Co. Chairman-CEO Don Graham, Rick's boss, said, "Rick would be the hands-down winner in a newsmag-azine decathlon. He can pick the right cover, write the story, edit it, do the layouts, write the heads and sell the ads." And he's also a nice guy, Don added.

So Rick was basking in the glow of a pretty heady occasion, with everybody spiffed up in their tuxedos and gowns amid the splendor of the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in New York. Pretty hard to beat, don't you think?

But two days before he was at the podium at the Fisher Awards ceremony to make a few well-chosen acceptance remarks, Rick strode to where his golf ball was embedded in some gnarly grass. It was just outside a steep bunker on the final hole of a four-day golf marathon of 13 nine-hole matches. After 116 holes, the score against his fierce opponent and good friend, Mark Vittert, was all-even.

Negative thoughts had gotten into Rick's head, however. He had a horrendous lie, and he had visions of either skulling the ball and hitting it over the green or fluffing it and moving it only a couple of feet.

Mark and Rick play their matches twice a year: once in the summer in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan for the "North American" championship, and once in the winter on the Florida swing for the "South American" championship. Vittert was the reigning South American champion, so a win would taste mighty sweet for Rick. I have been honored to be in both places to witness their epic duels.

One day during their 408-hole, 10-day golf display last summer, Mark and Rick were eating breakfast at the Early Bird. They were greeted by some guys they had run into at the golf courses where they played. It was 9:30 on a rainy morning and one of the guys kidded, "Taking it easy today, are you?" Mark and Rick didn't say anything. They already had played 18 holes.

In both golf and magazine publishing, Rick isn't prone to the latest fads. He's disciplined, a guy who pauses at the top of his back swing before he hits the ball straight down the middle. One of the lessons he's learned in the magazine business is that "the buzz you're hearing just might be a chain saw." At the Waldorf dinner, Rick said he keeps an Annie Leibowitz picture of 20 or so editors of the "hot new magazines born in the 1980s." By the early 1990s, Rick said, less than a handful of the magazines were still publishing, "and all the editors, save one, had moved on."

"Buzz is great," he said. "We all love to be talked about. But the picture is a good reminder: It takes a lot more than chatter to get a magazine into its second decade, let alone a second or third generation."

And it takes a lot more than a trendy golf swing to go 116 holes and end up tied for the South American championship. On the last shot, Rick chipped into the cup for a par and the win.

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