Nike chief Cindy Davis aims for peak performance

Nike's Cindy Davis and her puppy before a long run in Oregon.

Nike's Cindy Davis and her puppy before a long run in Oregon.

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Dressed as if she should be starring in a Nike commercial, Cindy Davis, outfitted head-to-toe in swoosh-stamped gear, is hurdling tree roots, stomping through muck and tackling an ascent that would leave most gasping. It’s a chilly March afternoon, and Davis is trail running amid dense trees cloaked in fog and mist that make the place feel enchanted.

“I’ve run through here when the heavens have opened up, and it’s just incredible,” she says of her favorite local getaway, Forest Park, a 5,100-acre wilderness within Portland that gets nearly 40 inches of rain annually. “This is what I do to recharge.”

On this day, Davis is joined by her frequent running companion – Tilly, her 2-year-old German pointer mix, which she rescued from a shelter. Both politely slow the pace so a winded guest can keep up. Davis may not fly up the twisting path, but she looks as if she could run forever. A veteran of six marathons, she is a believer in holistic wellness and insists it’s the key to handling the rigors of her job as Nike Golf president. Asked just how tough her work can be, Davis, 49, answers quickly.

“It’s intense.”

That’s probably an understatement, considering the many factors stymieing the golf industry. Participation is sliding, U.S. Golf Association limitations make product advances difficult, and many companies are competing on price, clinging to what remains of their market share.

In an ever-widening gap between winners and losers, the responsibility for making sure Nike Golf ends up in the right column falls squarely on Davis’ shoulders. It is a daunting task for anyone, let alone one of the few women to occupy the corner office in a male-dominated business. But Davis maintains she doesn’t feel additional pressure or scrutiny that’s typically the burden of pioneers.

One explanation for her immunity? She epitomizes a new breed of corporate female executive. Davis certainly doesn’t fit stereotypes of woman-as-boss; she neither acts as if she’s tough enough to be a man nor wields her femininity as a means to an end. She doesn’t boast about her success, but she doesn’t apologize for it, either.

Hers is not a story about a zealous ladder-climber constantly ramming her head against a glass ceiling. Truth is, Davis capitalized on her golf pedigree as a collegiate standout and seized opportunities that unfolded before her. The result is a golf resume that is as impressive as it is diverse: vice president of the LPGA; president and chief executive officer of The Arnold Palmer Golf Co.; senior vice president of Golf Channel; and Nike Golf chief. Such success fills her lithe, 5-foot-9-inch frame with confidence. Indeed, she thrives on creating something better, competing, and, of course, winning.

“Some people need to see it to believe it,” Davis says. “But it’s so important to believe it so you can see it.”

• • •

Working alongside men as well as against them comes naturally to Davis because she has done it since she was a teenager growing up in Bowie, Md., a middle-class suburb of Washington. Taught golf by her father, Davis pursued the sport as a way to expand her college options. That meant playing on the boys’ team at Bowie High School. Davis could sense opponents’ trepidation of playing a girl with game, but never felt guilty trouncing them.

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“I played from their tees, and beat them fair and square,” she says.

For his daughters, John Davis reinforced at every opportunity a belief that they could accomplish what they dreamed. Cindy and her younger sister, Candace, accepted that as gospel. Just as compelling was the determination of their mother, Lois, whom the girls witnessed juggle raising a family and earning a master’s degree in biology. John, a ship engineer, and Lois, a teacher – they will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year – created such a nurturing environment that Davis says, “They were terrific in providing really everything you could want as a kid.”

With an abundance of support, Davis honed her game at a neighborhood course. Candace says her sister practiced all the time, not just at the course but in the house (she broke a light fixture while swinging) and around it (she chipped a shot over the porch, shattering a bedroom window). Davis became enamored about attending Furman University, which produced LPGA stars Beth Daniel and Betsy King. When King made a recruiting call to Davis, it sealed the deal.

Under the tutelage of then-Furman coach Mic Potter, Davis’ game only improved. She barely missed becoming an individual NCAA champion in 1983. She earned Division I first-team, All-American honors that same year.

“I don’t think people who know Cindy today realize just how good she was,” says Potter, now the women’s coach at Alabama. “She was eerily consistent. She was always prepared, always practiced with a purpose. You really had to beat her, because she wasn’t going to beat herself.”

Davis, who became team captain, flirted with playing professionally. Before she went to LPGA Q-School, she took her entrance exams for graduate school and law school. Davis missed getting her tour card by only two shots, but she was done.

“There were five of us who showed up representing our school, and I loved that,” she says. “But it took on a whole different dimension when it just became me. It wasn’t as inspiring.”

Potter, too, sensed that Davis was destined for other pursuits.

“Mechanically and athletically, she had the skill set to be a tour player, absolutely,” Potter says. “But maybe not emotionally. The only time she might lose focus was if a teammate was struggling. She was always so compassionate.”

What might have been a weakness, however, would become her leadership trademark.

Davis earned her MBA at the University of Maryland and began traveling the road through corporate America, with early stints at Hallmark Cards and American Indemnity. As golf seemed on the verge of fading into her past, she received not one, but two phone calls from friends informing her about an LPGA opening. The coincidence compelled her to inquire about the job, which called for bolstering the tour’s obscure Teaching and Club Professional division. The challenge intrigued Davis, and she interviewed with then-commissioner Charlie Mechem. She joined the tour in 1992 and quickly excelled. Mechem heaped more duties upon her, making her a vice president within a few years at 31.

“Some lead by intimidation, some lead by bribery and some lead by deception,” Mechem says. “They can all be effective, but when trouble strikes, those people look behind them and realize their troops are gone. Cindy’s style makes you feel like you don’t want to let her down.”

In 1997, Davis took charge of building the NancyLopezGolf brand, which was then part of Palmer’s business enterprise. Though still early in her management career, Davis demonstrated “smarts and common sense” to lead the start-up profitably, which, Nancy Lopez says, was no small feat in an era of big-brand domination. Davis, who grew up with the Hall of Famer’s poster on her room wall, won the admiration of her idol. So much so that in recent years when the LPGA’s top post has been vacant, Lopez has “begged” Davis to fill it.

“I’ve always thought she would have been perfect as the first female commissioner, but she’s always turned me down because she’s been very loyal to what she’s doing,” Lopez says. “I respect that. But I’m still hoping, maybe someday . . .”

• • •

In the sprawling campus of Nike world headquarters, where 7,000 employees work and work out, Davis’ office is housed in the Rogue Building. It’s a fitting name, considering Nike, for all its advances in the marketplace,is a relative outsider compared with long-established golf equipment brands. Davis – who joined the golf division six years ago and became president in 2008 – can’t push fast enough to weave Nike into “the fabric of the game.” That’s what fuels her.

Two years ago, even in the depths of the recession, she decided to spend more money than budgeted to hasten the development of a promising-yet-unproven, resin-core ball technology. That investment yielded Nike’s latest 20XI ball, which will hit retail stores by May 1. Nike officials have high expectations for the new product.

“If you’re going to achieve real growth, you have to take calculated risks,” Davis says. It’s a mantra she preaches not just to grow sales, but to push herself – and her staff – outside comfort zones. She’s all about extracting peak performance and maintains that excelling in the corporate arena is no different than winning on the playing field. Both require proper preparation, training and focus.

To do her job better, Davis worked “undercover” at a major golf retailer, apprenticing as a sales associate to experience first-hand “the moment of truth when a consumer engages in your product.” She enrolled her management team in a “corporate athlete” seminar that’s a staple of other Fortune 100 giants such as Procter & Gamble. And when running meetings, she has made attendees “park” their BlackBerrys and iPhones in a basket so they can concentrate on the task at hand.

“You have to be in the present,” Davis says.

Considering her approach to work, it’s no wonder then that Davis is an admirer of Nike icon Tiger Woods, whom she calls a friend. Though they never have played golf, the two have worked together in product-creation sessions, traveled for promotional ventures and relaxed at Starbucks sans entourage.

“He has an unbelievable commitment to getting better at whatever he pursues,” Davis says. “And he really pushes us.”

Asked how disappointed she was by Woods’ personal failings, Davis won’t judge and speaks the company line: “We stand by him.” On a personal note, she adds, “Everybody deserves a second chance, and I mean that sincerely.”

The crumbling of Woods’ life, however, isn’t what shook Davis. That happened when her brother-in-law – Candace’s husband, Mark – died unexpectedly 31⁄2 years ago. He was 50. Davis rushed to Candace’s side, handled her husband’s business affairs, cared for her three children and eulogized Mark at the wake. Davis’ nephew, who was only 4, knocked on the closed casket, innocently searching for his father.

Of that difficult time, Candace says, “I couldn’t have gone through it without Cindy.”

Earlier in their lives, the sisters went their different ways, according to Candace, mostly because of Davis’ golf commitments and her busy career. The tragedy was crushing, but it also reunited.

“She’s my best friend; she’s my rock,” Candace says.

That moment redefined Davis, too. It ignited her desire to become even stronger – physically, mentally, emotionally – to better overcome the inevitable hardships that life delivers.

In addition to her running routine, Davis – who awakes by 5 and “expires” at 9 – meets weekly with a personal trainer for an hourlong regimen that involves an array of gear, including balance discs, free weights, medicine balls, elastic bands and a rowing machine.

To balance her life, Davis carves out time for three essentials, which – no surprise – she efficiently enjoys in one sitting: good friends, good food and good wine. Of the latter, she says she’s not a connoisseur, but jokes, “I know enough to be dangerous.”

Most importantly, she makes time for family back in Maryland. Davis, who is single, takes every opportunity to visit Candace and spoil her children with the latest Nike shoes. It’s an act of generosity, but doubles as Davis’ personal way of thwarting a Nike rival that is based in the state. Never underestimate her competitive spirit.

“Trust me,” Candace says. “There’s no Under Armour in this house.”

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