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David Main took over as GM of the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club in February of 2018.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

This is the 16th story in our series looking at MBA and other business school graduates who are working in non-traditional fields.

Almost 15 years ago, David Main says he was having a “pity party” after failing to land a job at a private golf club just northwest of Toronto.

He was reading the celebrated novel Tuesdays with Morrie, which explores the meaning of life, and lying in bed asking himself what was he really doing with his life and career.

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“I was reading this book and I thought: Stop feeling sorry for yourself. If you really feel like you want to do more things, you’re going to have to get off your own ass and do it. No one is going to give it to you,’” he recalls.

He heeded his own challenge.

Mr. Main, 48, is now the general manager at the private Toronto Lawn Tennis Club in the city’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood after more than a decade in senior management positions at some prominent golf clubs throughout Ontario.

His transformation is largely thanks to the decision he made to get his MBA, he says.

Mr. Main holds an engineering degree from Queen’s University in Kingston (Class of 1993) and his side passion and skills for golf led him to become a professional in the early 1990s. He began his career in 1995 working at Northridge Municipal Golf Course in Brantford, Ont., right after he finished his undergrad.

He first wrote the GMAT a few years after graduating, thinking he would go back to school, but didn’t end up applying to a business school until almost 10 years later.

“I loved being a golf professional but I saw several of my colleagues lose their jobs and they fell flat at 50 years old, teaching at a driving range,” says Mr. Main. “I didn’t want that to be my life, so I actively went after getting my MBA.”

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Mr. Main admits he thought about getting out of the golf industry altogether – he even worked for a national pool company for eight months – but a good opportunity at the Ingersoll Golf Club in Ingersoll, Ont., came up in 2006 and he took it. He was in that role for a year before moving to Brampton Golf Club in suburban Toronto as its general manager and chief operations officer. It was then that he started his MBA as well.

“It was always in the back of my mind to do the MBA, but there were a couple of triggers that had to happen in my life. The first was the book (Tuesdays with Morrie), and the other was what was going on around me,” he says. “I had to do something for myself.”

Mr. Main says he started his MBA at 34 and was part of a small group of students at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., who were about 10 years older than the rest of the class. He felt comfortable enough in the room – and more comfortable than the year prior, when he took a few undergrad business classes to brush up on basic concepts alongside 18- and 19-year-olds – until he said what he did for a living.

Mr. Main says he started putting his MBA knowledge to work even before he graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University, applying lessons to his golf pro job.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

“I was the oddball,” he admits. “We’re going around the room and introducing ourselves. And there were people in finance at TD [Toronto-Dominion Bank], working at KPMG, working with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and I was like, ‘I’m a golf professional.’”

He says many of his fellow students were merely going through the program to advance in their careers, unable to implement what they were learning because they were so far down the totem poll in their large companies. But Mr. Main was in class thinking he could use his learning immediately at the golf course.

“I could see it and I could use it the next week,” he explains.

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Despite feeling the oddball, Mr. Main isn’t the first golf pro or sports organization administrator to go down the MBA path.

Some specialized MBA programs have popped up in the past few years that encourage students interested in sports or club management to pursue higher education to learn professional management skills. For example, there’s now a diploma in the business of golf and resort management at McMaster University in Hamilton (a program formerly offered at Laurier, called golf operations management), or the Business of Hockey MBA offered through Alberta-based Athabasca University.

Grant Fraser, a former co-ordinator and professor in Niagara College Canada’s professional golf management program in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., says it’s no surprise to see club executives like Mr. Main thriving after getting an MBA, especially those who work at private clubs.

Mr. Fraser, who holds an MBA himself from the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont., says boards of directors at most private clubs are filled with senior executives from the corporate world. If they were performing an interview with a prospective general manager or chief executive officer who had an MBA, that person would get some serious consideration because of the skills they have.

“The MBA is all about problem-solving and recognizing an opportunity and bringing that opportunity to fruition. Working in a club environment you’ve got all these different kinds of businesses – turf grass, food and beverage, customer service, and marketing,” says Mr. Fraser. “[Someone with an MBA] would come to the table with a skill set and you wouldn’t have to teach them much.”

Mr. Main says having an MBA certainly helped him stand out from other candidates along the way, and although it was a grind for him to work full-time and essentially be a student full-time as well, his time at Brampton and the degree then led to him working as the GM and CEO of prestigious Beacon Hall Golf Club in Aurora, Ont., and Beach Grove Golf and Country Club in Windsor, Ont.

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He started his job with the Toronto Lawn Tennis Club last February, and although it’s not a golf course, many of its affluent members are also golf club members, and the fanatics of tennis, he says, are not much different than golf.

“Two things have given everything to my career,” he adds. “One is golf, the other is my MBA.”

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