Financial Perspectives from a Professional Golfer

Written by Rick McDonald, Financial Advisor

I’ve had the honor and good fortune to live two of my life dreams.  First, I became a successful professional golfer.  Then I was able to enter a second career as a financial planner/advisor, in which I get to truly impact people’s lives, helping them reach their goals and dreams.

Growing up, I knew that I wanted to play a professional sport.  I started with baseball in mind, and I had my sights set on the major leagues.  As fate would have it, however, golf was the sport in which I was able to go pro.

Early Efforts and Successes

Even as a child, before I ever held a golf club, there was something about being outdoors on fresh cut grass that I loved.  If you are a golfer, you likely know what I mean.  Getting that first tee time, on a beautiful summer day before the rest of the world wakes up, you hear nothing but the sounds of birds, and greenskeepers mowing the grass…there is nothing else quite like it.

It was on just such a morning when, at the age of 12, I decided that I wanted to play professional golf.  From that moment, and for the rest of my adolescence, I would eat, breathe and sleep golf; I couldn’t get enough. For example, in the summers of my youth, I typically played three rounds a day.  If that sounds obsessive, that’s because I was obsessed with it.  

Looking back now, I realize that golf is so much more than getting a little white ball in a hole 400 yards away.  As I played more and more over the years, golf taught me important life lessons: how to repeatedly face adversity and overcome it; the power of believing in oneself; the importance of patience, resilience, and perseverance.  Beyond that, I learned the importance of honesty, integrity, and respect—all integral aspects of golf, perhaps more than any other sport.

With diligent practice, my golf game and personal skills grew.  By age 16 (just four years later), I had won the Washington Junior Golf Association State Championship.  I also qualified for the prestigious U.S. Amateur tournament as the 2nd youngest player in the field, playing with the likes of Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Chris Kirk.  My skills were further validated when I qualified again the next year, still as one of the youngest participants.  

At that point, I began getting recruited by colleges around the country, and I remember how exciting it felt to be so wanted.  I ended up at California State University East Bay on a golf scholarship, and my time there was a great experience.

Hanging Onto the Dream

Before I knew it, however, I was 22 years old, back in my home state of Washington…and I was broke.  I had nowhere to play golf, and at one point couldn’t even afford a bucket of golf balls to hit.  I scrounged for range balls that went over fences, and I collected enough to at least get in some practice.  I’ll never forget the feelings that accompanied those times; it was not only humbling, but it made me really appreciate the things I had achieved, and the hard work that went into attaining them.  

As embarrassing as that period was for me, I firmly held onto my dream of someday playing on the PGA TOUR.  I likely would not have had the opportunity to pursue that dream if not for Alex, my friend and caddy. When non-golfers watch tournaments on TV, they may view caddies as just another type of hired help.  But a caddy can be (and Alex was) so much more—roommate, coach, sounding board, psychologist, confidant, and best friend. 

One summer evening, Alex and I came up with a plan, and we set our sights on Pawleys Island, SC.  After saving every cent we could for six months, in January of 2013, with all of our belongings piled into my SUV, we headed for the East Coast.  

Why South Carolina?  Two reasons.  First, there are a lot of golf courses in that area.  Second, living and playing golf there was dirt cheap.  After seven days of driving (including two big snow storms), we finally arrived at our 800 square foot condo in SC.  And I started entering golf tournaments. 

Top of My Game

At first, I struggled to make money.  When you are trying to make ends meet, you soon realize just how much a four-foot putt can be worth.  In the back of my mind, I sometimes knew that making a putt would mean the difference between eating steak—or Top Ramen—for dinner. 

As my golf game improved, I began making more money.  In early 2014, I played in a small, local pro tour in the low country of South Carolina, and I had some great finishes.  I actually won three times in six weeks, and my worst finish was 4th place.   It felt as if I was finally on the right track, and that I could stop worrying about money and focus on the reason we were there—to make the PGA TOUR. 

The qualifying tournament for the PGA TOUR Canada was in April of 2014.  All of the hard work and sacrifices that Alex and I had made finally came down to one week of golf.  It was one of the longest, most intense weeks either of us had ever experienced.  We both knew that if this didn’t work out, we would be headed back to Washington to find something else to do, and my days as a pro golfer would likely be over.  

Only the top 18 of 156 players were to receive TOUR cards, so the odds were against us from the start.  But Alex and I buckled down for five long days, and when we finally “holed out” for the last time in the tournament, our names were in 6th place.  We had made it, and I still remember that overwhelming feeling of joy and relief.

Immediately after qualifying, I was grabbed for an interview that later aired on the Golf Channel.  Alex and I looked at each other in disbelief as we watched the interview on TV in Orlando.  When we finally arrived back at our condo in SC after the tournament, I just sat in my room and cried.  I thought of the people who said I would never make it—that playing a sport for a living wasn’t possible.  I also relished the fact that all my hard work, and the belief and encouragement of a great friend, had gotten us to that point.  I felt like anything was possible.

We went on that season to finish 12th on the money list, with two runner-up finishes, and that put us in the top 700 ranked professional golfers in the world.  Alex and I were living our dream.

Empathy for Rich Athletes

We often hear of pro athletes’ absurdly high salaries, and it’s hard to feel sorry for them.  But my experience as a pro golfer gave me a different perspective and appreciation for the emotional challenges faced by young professional athletes.  We can all, especially young people, learn from their mistakes.

It seems obvious to you and me that anyone making millions of dollars a year should have plenty of money to ensure that their families are set for life.  But the truth is that most pro athletes end up broke.  Forbes found that roughly 80% of NFL athletes file for bankruptcy, or are under financial stress, within two years of leaving the league. For NBA players, roughly 60% suffer the same fate within five years of leaving the game.  How can so many of them seem to squander the highest-income years of their lives? 

For one thing, most pro athletes are young, usually just fresh out of college.  That means they are fairly immature.  Making matters worse, many of them come from backgrounds of abject poverty, so when large amounts of money are thrown at them, friends and relatives come out of the woodwork, and everyone wants a piece of the athlete’s newfound wealth.  They are literally living their dream, so it’s little wonder that common sense goes out the window, and long-term planning is the last thing on their minds.  If you, at that age, hit it big and had the money to not only buy the things you had always longed for, but be a hero in the eyes of family and friends, could you have resisted?

At my peak as a professional golfer, I was 24 years old.  I was flush with cash, and I felt like I had the world at my fingertips.  I remember wanting all the trappings of wealth, and it looked like I would soon be able to afford them—the most expensive hotels, fanciest restaurants, sports cars, a large home and estate, flying on private jets, and so on.  I left the pro game before I achieved most of those materialistic dreams, but I remember clearly that the closer I got, the more I wanted them.  If my success had continued, I’m not sure that I could have resisted the urge to squander more money than I should on such things.  Now, as a financial planner, I can clearly see the right course of action, but I’m willing to admit that, back then, I didn’t.

Another big problem is that most pro athletes expect their careers to last far longer than they actually do.  The professional career of most athletes is quite short (as was mine).  In the NFL, careers average just under four years.  In the NBA, it’s barely longer—just four and a half years.  And those are averages; by definition, many careers aren’t nearly that long.  Receiving millions of dollars in such a short period of time, and at such a young age, most players suddenly have a very high lifestyle.    

It’s not that pro athletes intentionally put their futures at risk.  They just figure that it’s alright to spend their big paychecks now, because there’ll be plenty of time to save money from future big paychecks.  Unfortunately, for most pros, those future paychecks never come.  Their careers often end suddenly and unexpectedly (e.g., due to serious injury).  When their pro careers end, what really matters is not the amount of money an athlete made during those glory years, but the amount they saved.

A good example of handling this uncertainty the right way is Marshawn Lynch, the former Seattle Seahawk football player nicknamed “Beastmode” (who, let’s face it, is an unlikely role model for anything).  During his career, Lynch reportedly spent only what he could make from endorsement deals.  All of his big NFL paychecks went straight into savings.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the exception.  Most pro athletes squander the bulk of what they make as they make it.  When the flood of income suddenly stops, they’re in trouble, with few marketable skills outside of their sport.  They can no longer afford the mortgage on that mansion, so they have to sell it.  The same with the big boats, Lamborghinis, and so on.  By failing to plan for the future, “wealthy” athletes end up with little to show for it except memories.

Because I am now a financial planner, I realize that almost everyone can benefit from financial planning.  But for pro athletes, creating long-term financial plans is critical.  Sadly, the time they most need a plan is at the beginning of their careers…when they least think they need one.

Second Career

My second season on the pro tour wasn’t nearly as glamorous as the first.  I struggled on the courses, and things just didn’t click like they did the year before.  Constant travel was wearing on me, both physically and emotionally, and it showed in my golf game.  I was torn between continuing to work on my golf career or hanging up my clubs (professionally) and moving on to something else.

In 2015, while I was struggling with that decision, I began trading stocks for my own account—something I had long had an interest in doing.  I really enjoyed it; researching and trading stocks was fun.  Moreover, it was a way to earn some additional income.  Golf, on the other hand, had become a real grind, and the more I struggled, the more stressful it became.

Soon I began thinking that perhaps I could make a career out of investing.  I began exploring the world of capital markets and wealth management.  The allure of becoming a financial advisor was twofold: it would allow me to continue researching and investing in stocks, and I could help other people achieve their long-term goals.  It really felt like the right path.

So I moved home to Edmonds, WA, and shortly thereafter began interviewing for Financial Adviser positions.  I was hired by Merrill Lynch (Merrill), where I expanded my understanding of investment markets, and got a better sense of how much I could improve people’s lives through financial planning and sound investment advice.  I was doing well at Merrill, and I felt that I was coming into my own, despite it being early in my new career.

I had no specific plan to leave Merrill Lynch…until I met my current boss, Marcus Dusenbury.  I am still an avid golfer, and I enjoy golfing with clients; it’s a great way to get to know them on a more personal level, and to have fun in the process.  After one such a day of golf, I was dropping off a client at his house and I saw Marcus playing with his son in his front yard.  Marcus had no idea that the fact that’s how I first saw him (with his son) told me a lot about him as a person. I don’t have children yet, but a boss who puts his family first is something that I greatly respect.  

As Marcus and I began to chat, I quickly discovered that he was a founding partner of Viridian Advisors, a fee-only Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) in nearby Bothell, WA.  I was intrigued, and more discussions followed.  The more I found out about Viridian, the more interested in joining them I became.  I was fortunate enough to be offered a position on the Viridian team, and I can honestly envision this being the place where I spend my entire career over the next few decades.  Viridian is a 100% employee owned firm, and I look forward to becoming a shareholder (partner) in the firm when the time comes. 

Part of what attracted me to Viridian was their culture, which is unlike anything I have seen or heard of in this business.  Aside from putting family first, Viridian’s business focuses on “3 Cs”—Clients, Colleagues and Community.  Their core values aligned perfectly with mine—always putting clients’ interests first.  In fact, as a fee-only RIA, Viridian financial advisors are actually fiduciaries, meaning they legally must put clients’ best interests ahead of their own.  Rather than selling products to clients for commissions, with the conflicts of interest that entails, fiduciary advisors are on the same side of the table as clients, motivated to utilize the very best and lowest-cost investments to accomplish clients’ goals.  I wanted to become a fiduciary advisor, and I love coming to work every day knowing that I am part of a team of like-minded professionals, all working to make clients’ lives better.

I feel very fortunate to have achieved one of my dreams, being a professional athlete, early in life.  And now I am living another dream—helping others, as a fiduciary financial planner and advisor.  Although I no longer play golf for a living, I still get to play…just for the fun of it.  And my second career is especially meaningful and fulfilling…because now I get to help other people attain their dreams.

Viridian is an SEC Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) with clients across the United States. Viridian offers financial planning, investment management, and tax services (through its sister company, Viridian Tax and Accounting). Rick McDonald is a Viridian financial planner and advisor.

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