Pinnacle champ Jon Whittaker reflects on golf-to-biz transition

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,139 views 

Jon Whittaker, a senior account manager at data analytics and retail technology firm Inmar Intelligence in Rogers, has won a record five consecutive men's club championships at Pinnacle Country Club.

Many serious golfers set their sights on winning their local club championship as the ultimate goal in their golfing life. For amateur golfers who never played professionally, it’s their major.

For former pros? Well, it’s still pretty darn fun.

Just ask Jon Whittaker of Rogers. His golf career began as a boy growing up in Little Rock. He was one of the state’s best-ever junior players, a multiple high school and state amateur champion, a successful collegian, and a winning professional during a decade-long career playing various mini-tours across the country.

Whittaker, 45, has long since transitioned out of professional golf. He’s worked for several companies in Northwest Arkansas, including J.B. Hunt Transport Services, and spent the past seven years working in Rogers for the data analytics and retail technology firm Inmar Intelligence.

But he’s still collecting victories on the golf course — and at a notable rate.

In August, Whittaker won his fifth consecutive men’s club championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, an unmatched feat since the club, founded in 1990 as Champions Golf & Country Club, held its first club championship that year.

Whittaker completed the 54-hole tournament at 1-under par (67-72-73—212) and won by 10 shots. He now has six club championships in eight years at Pinnacle, tied with Dick McLelland, who won the first four years and six of the first eight. McLelland is a retired bank executive who still lives on the property and plays frequently.

Whittaker said he was unaware this year’s victory carried any significance, a change in mindset from being singularly focused on winning for most of his golfing life.

“It doesn’t define me like it used to,” Whittaker said in a recent interview. “It used to be my true identity. I would bring it home, and if I played poorly, I wasn’t fun to be around for a while. Now, I realize it’s just a game, and there will be good and bad days.”

The financial disparities between competing on the lucrative PGA Tour and every other golf tour in the U.S. are stark. In a business analogy, playing on the PGA Tour is akin to doing business with Walmart. Playing on the mini-tours is like having your product stocked in a regional grocery store chain with 50 locations.

“I had some success and had some good years, but it’s a lonely road,” Whittaker said about his time playing on the lower tiers of the pro golf ladder. “It’s weeks at a time on the road, grinding it out trying to make a living.”

Whittaker earned a marketing degree in 2000 from the University of Arkansas, two years after completing his eligibility with the Razorbacks. As a senior at Catholic High School in Little Rock in 1994, he had a wide selection of colleges to choose from but accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Arizona, which won the NCAA Division I national golf championship two years earlier.

For various reasons, Whittaker said Arizona wasn’t a good fit, and he transferred to Fayetteville, where he played on several highly-ranked Razorback teams.

Focused on the ultimate goal of earning his PGA Tour card — something his older brother, Ron Whittaker, accomplished in 1996, 2006 and 2008 — Whittaker gave professional golf a shot starting in 2001. He won his first event in 2003, a Tight Lies Tour stop in Tyler, Texas, and won three more times as a professional. But by late 2009, after discussing with his wife, friends and others for more than a year, Whittaker was ready to seek a more stable occupation.

“That was extremely difficult,” he said. “I think if you talk to any athlete in any sport professionally, it’s hard for them to walk away from the sport.”

Various things can prepare a person for their business career, even life as a mini-tour golf professional.

So, too, can being a family man.

By the time Whittaker ended his pursuit in late 2009 of a PGA Tour card, he and his wife of seven years, Amanda, had two young children. He joked that the initial thing he was looking for in a “second” career in Northwest Arkansas was to start receiving a steady paycheck.

Wherever he landed, he was confident that what he learned playing golf for a living would translate to the business world.

“During interviews, I kept saying that I might not have the experience on paper they were looking for, but in my mind, I had run my own company and my own business for 10 years,” he said. “If you want to be successful, you have to stick to it. And that means being accountable every single day.

“I tried to lean on that and hope that somebody would give me a chance. I knew I was a hard worker, and no matter what you put in front of me, if I didn’t have the experience, I would find a way to figure it out and learn it.”

Through personal contacts, Whittaker landed a job in January 2010 at J.B. Hunt as a fleet manager. He spent a year with the company and described the work as eye-opening and challenging.

Whittaker admitted there were days that he struggled, usually when it was gorgeous outside, and he would be trying to remember why he decided to give up golf and work in an office. But for the most part, he embraced the challenge of learning something new.

“I spent a year at J.B. Hunt, and it was difficult,” he said. “But I look back on it now and think maybe if I’d taken a job that was a little easier, who let me learn and gradually get into it, I probably wouldn’t be where I am right now. I learned a lot in those times, and it helps me in my current role.”

Whittaker’s post-golf career later took him to Shopper Events, an in-store retail marketing company in Rogers, in 2011, then to Nestlé two years later when the family moved to Ohio.

Whittaker said he didn’t play much golf while he was a Nestlé sales rep. But when the family returned to Northwest Arkansas in 2014, the golf urge returned, too. Whittaker regained his amateur status, and the Whittakers joined Pinnacle Country Club.

“I had a little burnout after my playing days [ended], but I needed something other than work,” he said. “So we joined as [golf] members, and I’ve met some great people and made some great friends. We have a large group of guys who play every weekend.”

Whittaker described a bit of hesitancy about joining because he didn’t want the other members to view him as “the pro.” Those concerns have been unfounded.

“I didn’t want that stigma,” he explained. “I just wanted to be one of the guys and be out there to have fun. And that’s what it’s become. The time spent away from it and having this group of guys that I play with — golf has become fun again.”

Whittaker said Pinnacle’s club championship events aren’t without a “large” competitive element. He still gets nervous and wants to perform well.

He also uses his competitive experience from golf at Inmar, working with various brands to market them to national retailers. And after operating as an individual for so many years as a competitive golfer, Whittaker said he relishes being part of a team in a business setting.

“It’s a fun job,” he said. “I work on such a great team, and that’s why I’ve been here for so long. I’ve been offered other jobs at other companies, but for me, I want to enjoy what I do and the people I work with. That’s where I get my energy. That’s what gets me up in the morning and going to work — either mentoring or collaborating with others and learning.”

And just like with golf, Whittaker’s inquisitive mindset is an asset to his work. Not only is there room for constant improvement, but it’s also a necessity.

“You can’t ever think that what you know now is good enough,” he said. “Golfers are always trying to work on their craft and get better and learn more, and that’s what I’m trying to do [at Inmar]. I want to be good at my current role, but I want to learn all aspects of Inmar. It’s going to be valuable in some part of what I do eventually.”