The Accidental Golf Czar
By David Kohn
ILLUSTRATION BY JEANETTE J. NELSON M.B.A. ’14
As an All-American golfer at Furman University, Cindy Davis could have gone pro back in 1984. Instead, she swung for a career on the business side of the green.
With an M.B.A. from Maryland in hand, Davis has risen from leadership positions at the Ladies Professional Golf Association, the Arnold Palmer Golf Co. and the Golf Channel to become president of Nike Golf, a $700 million-a-year operation that’s aiming to become as ubiquitous in golf as it is in basketball and football.
Last year, Sports Illustrated named her the 46th most powerful person in sports (ahead of a more famous Nike employee, Michael Jordan).
“I really didn’t think I would combine golf and business,” she says. “It was unplanned.”
Her introduction to golf was similarly accidental: When she was 13, Davis’s family vacationed in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She was bored, so her parents suggested that she try golf at the course across the street from where they were staying.
“I got hooked,” Davis says. “I just became obsessed with it.”
She loved the discipline of the game, the mental and physical precision required to succeed. Back home in Bowie, Md., she practiced constantly (even in her house, where she shattered windows and lamps). She played on the boys’ team in high school, and often won.
Her golf coach at Furman, Mic Potter, says it was clear 30 years ago that Davis was singular. “She’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever had,” says Potter, now a national championship-winning coach at the University of Alabama. “She wasn’t a rah-rah kind of person. Her style was quiet and encouraging. But she really made the team better.”
Davis says she found business school at Maryland relatively relaxing: After spending four years as an elite student-athlete, either practicing or studying, she had more time for herself.
At Nike, she made news by signing golf’s newest superstar, Rory McIlroy, to a 10-year contract last year worth as much as $250 million. Earlier this year, the company unveiled a new driver (to good reviews) as well as a variety of high-tech apparel designed to keep golfers comfortable and dry.
Davis travels constantly between Nike Golf’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and its worldwide offices; recent itineraries included stops in Toronto, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Manchester, Frankfurt, Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai. It’s grueling, but she loves it. “We’re building a business in an area that I have a lot of passion about.”
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