I don’t think too many people really enjoy turning 50, but hitting that milestone this year made me eligible to compete in the U.S. Senior Open golf tournament. Not too many amateurs make it to the tournament, so it was a thrill to be a participant. The week, though, became extra special, because during the competition I broke just about every scoring record possible—the lowest round shot, the lowest 36- hole cut, the lowest 36-hole score ever shot by anybody (not just amateurs), and the lowest 72-hole score shot by an amateur. I led the tournament for the first two days. And although I didn’t win (I came in 11th), breaking all of those records took the sting out of turning 50.
Many accountants play golf, but few, I would guess, could point to golf as being instrumental in their career choice. When I was about 16, I took up the game and would often golf with my father’s CPA, Arthur Sparks. Like most youngsters, I was impressionable. Fortunately, I was impressed by a good role model. Art became my mentor and encouraged me to go into accounting, saying it was the backbone of business and would give me the broad perspective I would need to be successful. He was right.
After I graduated from the University of Tennessee with honors in accounting, I worked for a Big Eight firm for two years. I then took a position with a hotel management and development company as its vice president of finance. That experience has proved invaluable. When I opened my own boutique firm with a partner, we specialized in the hotel and real estate industries and eventually acted as general partners on the equity and financing side of 15 real estate projects, mostly hotel renovations. When my partner and I realized we were making 90% of our money from equity management, I sold the practice in 2000 to concentrate on that business. I became involved in other projects, including running two companies. Today, I continue to be involved in private equity.
Running my own firm had a big benefit: I could schedule my time so I could play golf. Once the busy season ended, I was able to devote time to play in about 12 or 13 amateur tournaments from May through October. My accomplishments as an amateur include winning 11 Tennessee State Championships; three U.S. Golf Association championships; being a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team twice, in 1995 and 1999 (Tiger Woods was a teammate); and being the second-ranked amateur golfer in the world in 1995 behind Tiger Woods.
Each tournament I compete in is sweet, in a different way. The first victory is always exciting; the second one is great because it validates the first. People might assume playing in the Masters Tournament, which I did twice, in 1995 and 2002, would be among my greatest thrills, but they would be wrong. My greatest thrills were when I won my first Tennessee State Amateur Championship in 1994 and when I won the U.S. Mid-Amateur for the first time, which elevated me to the top echelon of amateur golf, as well as being on the Walker Cup team. Someday I hope to captain the team; that would be an honor.
I could turn pro and go on the senior circuit, but I don’t want to. My priorities are my family, my business, and then golf. People sometimes ask, “If you could do it over, would you make different choices?” Absolutely not. Some of the best years of my life were spent counseling my clients and working with small business people—making a difference, not only in their businesses but in their lives. That’s very gratifying. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I’ve been fortunate to work in a field and a profession that have allowed me to pursue what I enjoy and what is most important to me.
—As told to Linda Segall
Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Golf Association