A Short Break From Golf Lead Dai To A Big Break In Her Career Off The Course
“You have a unique journey and story that no one can take from you – don’t lose sight of that.” – Rachel Dai
It was the summer before her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania and Rachel Dai had just received a call from her head coach, Mark Anderson. He had shared the news that she was going to be a team co-captain. The honor was the culmination of years of hard work – but what should have been a joyous occasion instead made Rachel very reflective as she pondered where golf fit in her future plans.
An only child who grew up in metro-Atlanta, Rachel started playing golf at nine years old. She played other sports, like swimming, dancing, figure skating, as well as chess. Rachel got into chess as a way to spend time with her father but dreaded having to sit still for long periods of time as a kid. One day when her father saw her dreading the approach of another chess match, he asked if she wanted to try golf instead. The next day they went to the range together and she never looked back.
Rachel began playing competitively at 12 or 13. As she got more serious about it, she dropped dance, music classes, and all other extracurriculars to focus on her game. She moved to Milton, a nearby Atlanta suburb, for high school so that she’d have easier access to courses for practice. At that time, she also began playing in AJGA events, including the ANNIKA Invitational USA presented by Rolex.
“I was starstruck when I first saw Annika at that event,” says Rachel. “As I got more serious about the game, I quickly realized how big of a deal it was to have Annika involved. Playing in the ANNIKA Invitational USA also showed me that there were a lot of really good girls out there, many of whom I idolized.”
Also memorable were the clinics Annika led for competitors.
“The range workshops were conducted in such an intimate setting. I remember Annika talking about the importance of practicing efficiently with purpose and sharing memories from her childhood about how her dad had told her that she needed to make every minute count when practicing. Here was one of golf’s greatest standing before me, just casually dishing out her secrets of success to a group of young teenage girls – her approachable, down-to-earth energy really stuck with me.”
Around the age of 14, Rachel started to catch the eye of college coaches. She also met Lewis Horne, a prominent Atlanta attorney and member of the American Junior Golf Association’s board of directors. Lew, as she affectionately called him, held degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard Law and was a major advocate for women’s golf on and off the course. He became Rachel’s mentor, helping to guide her through the college recruiting process and introducing her to many other female golfers in Georgia. They included people like Alina Lee, a standout at the University of Georgia who ended up pursuing a law career. By getting to know other female golfers that came before her, Lew made sure that Rachel was as well-prepared as possible to make her own choice.
A lot of thought went into that choice. Academics were always a priority, engrained by her graduate-degree-holding parents, so the Ivy League was constantly on the back of her mind. But if she was serious about pursuing an LPGA playing career, it made sense for her to consider schools like Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Duke that combined both stellar golf with world-class academics.
As she visited campuses and pondered the best path, UPenn rose to the top as she decided that she wanted to study business. Rachel came to realize that she had additional interests outside of golf, so the university’s Wharton School really grabbed her attention. Her mindset was to create as many options as she could and at UPenn she could combine her love of golf with her interest in business. Furthermore, as Kelly Shon had shown at Princeton, it was possible to earn an Ivy League degree and still reach the LPGA. The best of both worlds seemed possible at UPenn.
But upon arriving in Philadelphia for her freshman year, Rachel quickly realized it could be very difficult to balance school and golf.
“After getting to know other parts of the student body who weren’t athletes, I distinctly remember wrestling with whether I deserved to be at Wharton, or if I was only here because golf had gotten me in. ‘Imposter syndrome’ was a very real thing for me, and it hurt my self-confidence.”
Adding to the stress was the fact that practice was a 40-minute drive from campus, and that made it tough for her to take all the classes that she wanted to schedule. The juggling was negatively affecting both her game and her grades, her dissatisfied performance in both leaving her at a crossroads.
When Coach Anderson called her that fateful summer day before her junior year, she was initially very excited and honored to be named co-captain. But she was also feeling very overwhelmed; on-campus job recruiting would be starting in a few short weeks and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wouldn’t be fully invested in practice. Also, Lew had passed away during her sophomore year, adding another unfortunate element to her unease. Rachel’s mind was elsewhere, and not being fully committed to practice certainly isn’t what Annika had preached during those ANNIKA Invitational USA clinics. Rachel knew she had to be 100% “in” if she was going to set the right example for her teammates.
“This moment of self-reflection led me to get the courage to ask Coach if I could take a semester off from golf. I didn’t realize how much pressure I’d put on myself until I verbalized everything and talked it out with him; the emotions just came pouring out. I knew if I simply went through the motions, I’d be doing a disservice to the younger girls.”
Thankfully, her teammates were incredibly supportive of her decision. She took the semester to focus on grades, extracurriculars and academic clubs to show that she “wasn’t just a golfer.” And it paid off, as she finally began to thrive on campus and reaped the benefits from her best semester ever, making Dean’s List and getting an internship that would eventually lead to a full-time position post-graduation – none of which would have been possible without the support and understanding from her teammates.
Rachel was as happy as she’d ever been. And it led her to a conclusion about where golf stood on her priority list.
“I realized all good things must come to an end and that I can’t be spreading myself out too thin. If I returned to the team, I’d be taking a spot from someone who wanted it more than me and I’d be doing a disservice. The hardest thing I ever had to do was to tell my teammates that I was ‘retiring’ because not playing competitive golf seemed unfathomable at the time – it had been such a core part of my identity for so many years.”
But golf isn’t totally out of her life.
Rachel still loves to play recreationally, often with her dad.
And her dream has shifted from playing professionally on the LPGA tour to becoming involved on the business side. She has interned with the LPGA’s Chief Sales Officer, Kelly Hyne, and as a part of her duties, she got to attend the 2017 Solheim Cup in Des Moines. And her ties with the world’s premier women’s sports organization go back even further than that. One of her favorite off-course memories from junior golf is when she was asked to introduce former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem at an AJGA gala dinner back in 2013. Charlie was so impressed with her poise that they remain in touch to this day; Charlie serves as a resource for advice on her professional path.
“It’s a whimsical dream for now, but my ultimate goal is to one day be on the LPGA’s board of directors. I want to be able to give back to the game that has given me so much in a meaningful and impactful way.”
Rachel also harbors dreams of qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship again to show young girls that it’s never “too late” and that the beauty of golf is that you never have to “retire” from the game altogether.
But for now, she’s laser-focused on her position as a Brand Strategy Analyst with BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, making every moment with the firm count.
Here’s more from Rachel, in her own words, about how golf continues to play a meaningful role in her current day-to-day work. There are lessons below applicable to all girls and young women who love the game and may be interested in understanding how to translate what they’ve learned on the course to off the course.
I’ve just completed my first year as an analyst on the Global Brand Strategy team at BlackRock – I work with a team of five other brand strategists who oversee and develop brand, marketing, and growth strategies and drive innovation across the BlackRock, iShares, and Aladdin brands.
The operating model is similar to college golf or any team golf event, in regards to knowing how to be a team player but also being able to perform independently. The AJGA’s Wyndham Cup team events were really unique experiences that exhibited team camaraderie and individual matches (I played on the East team in 2013-2015 – Go East!). The nature of my work is project-based with horizons ranging from long-, medium-, and short-term.
As an internal brand strategist for the firm, I work on projects that have global and firmwide impact and solve business challenges through marketing strategy and brand building. My team interacts with all parts of the organization (i.e. beyond marketing) by interfacing with each region and channel to coordinate, document, synthesize, and communicate firm priorities, so there is a mix of collaboration and leadership required.
I would organize the buckets of skills that my average day-to-day requires, which I owe all to golf, below:
1. Problem Solving
Although every golfer strives to shoot a perfect round, we all know that is not always the case. Being able to get out of sticky situations, especially those that require creativity (we all love a fun chip shot that utilizes a slope in your favor), is a valuable mindset to have when approaching any type of problem or challenge.
Developing empathy is a commonly overlooked skill that golfers have the unique opportunity to hone. In every round, you are likely to be paired with people you do not know, people who have different playing styles and habits, and most importantly, people who come from different places and backgrounds than you. When it comes to marketing and working in teams, it’s important to understand different perspectives – this is a critical first step towards being an active listener: someone who can interpret what someone’s true needs are, as well as be a good team player. Lots of projects start with a lot of questions that require deciphering to better understand what the task at hand is.
Years of practice rounds and tournament preparation have not only taught us how to analyze situations (in this case golf shots) from all possible angles and perspectives, while also weighing risk-reward trade-offs and probabilities, but also how to be quick and confident in my decisions. A good strategist is someone who can quickly diagnose a problem or situation and generate a plan of action that has taken many factors into account. In the case of golf strategy, factors that need to be taken into account include the ball’s lie, grass type, temperature, wind direction, player consistency, risk assessment, distance control, yardage – the list goes on. And all within pace of play.
Every golfer knows that the mental aspect of the game is just as important as, if not more, than the physical aspect. Good game plans result from good strategic thinking, which is a skill that is difficult to learn and hone in school and is better developed through real-life experience. When faced with several options, it’s critical to have the decision made clear in your head, much like being decisive about what shot to execute – we’ve all had those moments when we “knew it would break more to the left,” “should have added a bit more club to carry,” or, my favorite, “knew not to leave it short.”
After diagnosing and analyzing, the strategic work includes developing and delivering a well thought-out plan in a reasonable time frame. The implications of the work are quite high, so it requires thorough due diligence, workshopping, and socializing, all of which take time, especially when coordinating with people in different time zones.
Nothing is more frustrating than making mental mistakes on the golf course. Practicing golf is less about achieving perfection and more about reducing mistakes (or getting luckier, as Gary Player famously put it). Practice sessions before and after competition rounds drill in the high levels of discipline, detail and emotional ownership that are also needed to be successful in the workplace. Basic project management skills, such as organization, timeliness, and coordination, go a long way – planning out a tournament schedule requires a lot of time management skills (thanks Mom and Dad)!
Athletes are known to be innate hard workers, but I would argue that golfers are especially tested, given that no other sport requires learning and adapting to a new playing field (as opposed to a standardized stadium or field) week after week in all kinds of weather conditions with extensive travel. There is a lot of sunk cost involved, so being able to perform under pressure is a skill that easily translates over to meeting deadlines and public speaking, both of which are critical to a project’s success. I would also add that learning to know when to stop and rest is also important, both on the golf course and in the workplace, to protect your mind and body to protect longevity and ensure a sustainable career.
Being able to adapt requires a healthy mindset and headspace to accept what you can and cannot control and then making the most of a situation. Golf teaches us to not only take one shot and one hole at a time but to also not get too hung up on failures and mistakes. Sweating over the small stuff quickly becomes counterproductive because it is important to not lose sight of the big picture. For instance, there are steady even-par rounds with a majority of pars, and even-par rounds with inundated with doubles and birdies. When confronted with last-minute changes and roadblocks with a project, a strategist must be flexible and comfortable with change.
Finally, above everything else, golf is special to me because it develops character and tests patience in so many ways, both on and off the course. It engrains a drive for constant self-improvement, becoming life-long learners in our personal and professional lives.
Nothing is more humbling than being punished by a poor decision or by an unlucky bounce, while also being able to conduct oneself respectfully and maturely. Not only is the quality of work a reflection of who you are but how you treat yourself and others as well, which largely attributes to what kind of projects and opportunities come your way.
Off-days teach perseverance, hustle and resilience unlike anything else because it’s never over until it’s over (i.e. the ball is in the hole). When faced with a difficult situation or obstacle, adopting an optimistic perspective is more constructive and conducive.
Golf is unique in that it is a sport without an official referee who dictates a player’s score and relies on players to keep track of and report their own scores. The costs of breaking honesty, integrity and trust are not worth hampering one’s reputation and, quite frankly, one’s conscience.
It’s important to be a well-rounded individual, just as much as being a well-rounded player who demonstrates proficiency in both long game and short game, so it’s a good idea to continue to address your weaknesses and leverage your strengths. For example, as a marketing and strategy major, I never got the chance to take any communication or design courses; therefore, I am currently focused on improving my writing and information design skills since my work depends on my ability to not only communicate ideas but to also garner advocacy and buy-in for them.
In summary, these life-long lessons we’ve learned and developed through playing golf are a huge reason why I want to be able to give back to the game for everything that it has given me. I am a huge believer in the values and skills that golf can instill in people and of the impact it has on people’s lives, both on and off the course and, now, in and out of the workplace.
I hope this piece can provide a sense of comfort to any young female golfers who are unsure about where and how far golf can take them. I want to reassure you that these are skills that can be applied to any career outside of golf and should hopefully leave you with more confidence in yourself, your abilities, and your future – because it’s your journey, your story, and no one can take that away from you.