If you’re a golf fan entering Chicago Booth’s full-time MBA program this fall, you may recognize a familiar face when you arrive. European professional golfer Sally Watson has decided to leave the golf course behind — possibly for good — and study for an MBA in the Windy City.
The 26-year-old Scotland native is no stranger to top academic institutions and the intense rigor they demand. From 2009 to 2013 she attended Stanford University, where her adviser was none other than former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Secretary Rice provided a letter of recommendation to support Watson’s application to Booth.
Watson enrolled in Stanford on a golf scholarship and, after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in international relations, went on to join the Ladies European Tour. A glimpse of her profile on LET’s website shows a four-year pro career marked by success: runner-up for rookie of the year, 60 total tournaments played, six top-ten finishes, and €164,573 (or just under $200,000) in career earnings.
LOOKING FOR A NEW CHALLENGE
But as Watson sets the golf clubs aside to pursue an MBA, she says she never saw herself playing for a long period of time.
“I didn’t just wake up and think I’d join business school. I never saw myself playing for 20 years,” Watson told ESPN recently. “I wanted to push myself, see how good I could become, and then I had a tough decision, but it has led to great opportunities.
“It’s going to be academically challenging, and I’m excited by that.”
FACING UNCERTAINTIES AS A PROFESSIONAL GOLFER
Still, Watson’s decision to quit the game is indicative of the unrest surrounding the LET these days. Controversial CEO Ivan Khodabakhsh stepped down in early August, the culmination of consistent decreases in LET tournament event attendance the past few years. The rapid decline is demonstrated by Watson’s career: She had 20 events in 2015, 16 the following year, and just four this year — equating to fewer opportunities for players to make money in a sport that’s heavily dependent on tournaments and sponsorships to make a living.
“Playing golf isn’t the least stressful of careers you can choose,” Watson said in a recent interview. “You have to go and earn your living every week — a specific amount doesn’t go into your bank account every month like my sister — so I hope whatever career I choose will offer a bit more financial stability.”
Speaking on the podcast National Club Golfer, she explained further her decision to move on. “I made the decision in the middle of last year I was ready to start pursuing a different career,” she said. “The future of LET is fairly uncertain right now, so I think having another career waiting for me and ready to go has actually worked in my favor.”
A WORD OF BUSINESS ADVICE
Watson’s business-mindedness is already evident. As she leaves golf behind, she offered some advice to her previous employer. “In terms of just the pure organization of the business right now, I think there needs to be a lot of streamlining. I think, first and foremost, just reorganizing the structure of the business and understanding very clearly the product you’re trying to sell so that when you’re approaching potential sponsors you have a clear idea of what you can offer them.
“I definitely believe in the potential of the tour and that there is a market for the women’s game. It’s a growing market.”
Watson played her final match during the Ricoh Women’s British Open on August 3 and will begin her MBA journey at Chicago Booth this September. She isn’t the first professional athlete to take on the MBA. Earlier this year, Poets & Quants spoke to former Cleveland Browns player Chris Ogbonnaya, who chose an executive MBA from the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, and last year P&Q shared the story of former NBA all-star Sharif Abdur-Rahim, who earned his MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business.
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