Whether in his role leading staff of the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide or promoting golf tournaments, Daniel Sullivan is a golf salesman like no other.
Dan Sullivan might have been destined for a career promoting golf in central Ohio, and it probably began in middle school.
As the inaugural Memorial Tournament was held in 1976, Sullivan was there with classmates from St. Agatha School in Upper Arlington.
"When they first started the tournament, there was a gentleman named Joe Sugar who was a friend of the Nicklauses, member at Scioto (Country Club) and took a bunch of kids from St. Agatha's and brought us out here to volunteer during Pro-Am days. We'd work the scoreboards, and that was 1976-77 when the tournament started," Sullivan recalls. "I was 12 and 13 years old. So early on I have really nice exposure to it."
Fast forward 40 years and Sullivan is enjoying his 26th season on staff and his 16th year as executive director of the Memorial. This year also marks the 16th anniversary of the founding of his global sports-promotion company, HNS Sports Group, for which he serves as president.
His dual roles have allowed him to travel the world to promote golf while also running the show each spring as the golf world shines a spotlight on central Ohio.
A quick smile, engaging personality and a penchant for sales could have carried Sullivan on a career path far from Columbus. He graduated from St. Charles Preparatory School in Bexley and went to Miami University in Oxford to study marketing, but the Memorial kept calling him back to Dublin's Muirfield Village Golf Club.
"I was actually a bartender and waiter out here my junior and senior year at Miami. And then there's a gentleman named John Hines who was the general manager and director at the time who offered an internship for me. He's the 'H,'" Sullivan says, in his company's name. "He was my mentor in the beginning and became my partner later on," Sullivan says of Hines, who passed away two years ago.
The internship immediately followed Sullivan's graduation from Miami in 1987, giving him a chance to work not only on the Memorial Tournament that May but also the 27th Ryder Cup in September. Jack Nicklaus hosted and also captained the US team, which unfortunately lost.
The son of a salesman, Sullivan worked in sales for WTVN radio after the internship and then returned to the Memorial Tournament in 1990 when the marketing director position came open. He's remained there since, always juggling duties both for the Memorial and in larger sports marketing capacities.
Initially, Sullivan freelanced on projects for Jack Nicklaus Productions, through which Nicklaus was starting to create made-for-television golf events around the country. One was the Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge, which still brings together three players each from the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours in nine-hole stroke play matches and has raised more than $47 million for the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
Events management opportunities grew as Nicklaus bought Executive Sports International in the early 1990s. By 2000, Sullivan partnered with Hines and Steve Nicklaus, Jack's second oldest son, to form their own golf events management company. John's son, Ted Hines, also joined the company.
Sports marketing was not the booming industry it is today when Sullivan began his career, but he could still see the possibilities golf presented. "I knew that I liked the concept of sports and I knew that I was kind of geared to sell … It was an industry that really generated a lot of interest for me … sports in general and then golf," he says.
That he was able to grow in his field without leaving central Ohio has been an unexpected bonus. Sullivan pondered moving to New York or Chicago to work for bigger agencies or broadcast networks but "ultimately realized that my career was going in the right direction … and the good news with the job is that I stay in Columbus and raise a family and do everything that I want to do, and I travel extensively."
Columbus is also better off due to Sullivan's decision to stay, says Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission. Having traveled with Sullivan to promote sporting events in Columbus, Logan sees how others in golf respect Sullivan's expertise. "There's always somebody tugging at his arm asking how he does certain things-best practices, some of the very innovative things he has done. To have in him our own back yard is certainly something we should all be very proud of."
Last year, Sullivan traveled to New Songdo City in South Korea as a consultant on the 2015 President's Cup-not a bad journey for a kid who started volunteering at the Memorial as a pre-teen.More than Just Golf
Beyond the Memorial and Muirfield, Dan Sullivan's work with HNS has allowed him to expand use of golf to showcase central Ohio. Serving as tournament director for the President's Cup in 2013, Sullivan recalls, "As we got into the conversation, it became very apparent that it was more than golf. It was a week you celebrate international competition and good will."
Working with Ohio State University and the PGA tour, HNS helped educate international students, for example. "We had business seminars around what middle market businesses and middle market cities do for the economy. We used the tournament as a backdrop to talk about a bunch of different stories that are important to sports. It's not just the competition. It's the economic viability of what we bring through sport. The President's Cup was a great opportunity to showcase all of that," Sullivan says.
"We did the opening event at the Columbus Commons and we housed everyone at the new Hilton (Columbus Downtown) and they were able to use the Short North as a backdrop for entertainment and dinners and excursions. We were able to bring the communities together between Downtown Columbus and Dublin through parades and trophy convoys and going to schools," he adds.
Linda Logan says Sullivan excels at seeing "the bigger perspective about the community and how we work together … He seems to always have a great approach to make everyone feel included and part of something special. What was done for the President's Cup-we all learned a lot about how to do these big events in the community."
She adds, "Columbus is like that. You'll host a big event, first it was the President's Cup and then it was the NHL All-Star Game. Those best practices-it helps us when we were bidding on the (NCAA Basketball) Women's Final Four. At every turn, we can all learn from each other, and Dan personifies that."Keeper of the Dream
As executive director of the Memorial Tournament and president of the company that promotes one of central Ohio's iconic events, Sullivan is the keeper of the vision that Jack Nicklaus began nurturing 50 years ago.
"Jack wanted to bring a world-class golf tournament to his hometown. That was his original thought when he came up with the idea in 1966 at the Masters with his friends…That was his sole mission. Along the way, as he evolved the mission, it became the club that it is and the community that it is but in the beginning he wanted to bring a golf tournament here," Sullivan says.
The core components Nicklaus envisioned for realizing his dream have not changed, and Sullivan works to keep the Memorial true to its defining principles: honoring the greats of the game; offering an environment equally special for the players, spectators and television viewers, and giving back to the community.
"Those three hold true today," Sullivan says. "We focus on ensuring that whoever we're honoring, we make that person the centerpiece of our marketing communication. When we're thinking about running the golf tournament, we're always thinking about how it affects the players and the spectators, and the viewers. And then we're working diligently to try to figure out how to ensure that we maintain and grow our charitable contributions in Columbus."
One aspect of his work of which Sullivan is most proud is its charitable component. "Golf contributes more to charity than all the other major sports combined . . . So every one of these tournaments that you see across the US, doesn't matter what tour it is, is giving money to the local community. That's one of their primary tenets of hosting the event," Sullivan says. "It's a great platform to not only work within but to communicate as a value proposition."
Guarding the Memorial's stature as a premier PGA event also defines Sullivan's focus. That means growing the tournament's purse, maintaining its prime date at the end of May/first of June-when players are playing their best as they prepare for the US Open, British Open and PGA Championship-and keeping the Nicklaus-designed course at its competitive best.
Also important, Sullivan says, is that "how we treat the players is a step above other golf tournaments, and that has to do with the facility that Jack and Barbara created here."
Having Nationwide as the tournament's presenting sponsor is critical as well. "Any tour has to have a strong partner, and Nationwide's the perfect partner for us. They have the same beliefs as we do on how to present the tournament, and the expectations and goals are aligned," Sullivan says.
Support of legions of volunteers-both from the community and from the ranks of members of Muirfield Village Golf Club-is also key to the success of the tournament. "The members give up the golf course. They volunteer thousands of hours. They support the tournament financially by buying hospitality tickets," Sullivan says. "That's not only the Memorial but in every tournament . . . you're trying to make sure that those that dedicate their time, volunteer their time, are the ones that need to be recognized and appreciated," he adds.
"The final piece when it comes to separating ourselves from the other tournaments," Sullivan says, "is the promotion and the broadcast-how Golf Channel and CBS treat us as a broadcast property. We're different because of Jack Nicklaus, because of what he's meant to the game of golf . . . As Jack's legacy is written over time, it will be told through the Memorial Tournament. No one else has that ability on the PGA tour."Q&A
How did you first start working for the Memorial Tournament?
I just got lucky, frankly; and asked for an internship, got it, and realized as I was an intern and got a little bit of exposure to it, it was an industry that really generated a lot of interest for me.
How closely do you work with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus?
They live in Florida, but there is ongoing communication about how the tournament's doing and what we're trying to achieve for the year and what their expectations are and what our goals are. They'll come in here in April for our Legends event and then they'll be back at the end of May to help us put the tournament on.
How do you know if they're pleased with what you're doing?
I haven't been fired. (Laughs) It's a great relationship. If they're interested in something looking different or performing differently, they'll just tell you: here's their thought and the reasons behind it. There's not much confusion about what the expectations are. They're great in the communication, and they're great in providing constructive criticism and in providing accolades.
Do you get any time to golf yourself?
There is a little bit of time during the summer. I play about 20 times a year. I enjoy when I play.
Are you any good?
Not bad. I have a 6 handicap right now. I always joke that I've been to 80 of the top 100 golf courses but I've only played about 20 of them. You get to go to beautiful places, but I don't play a ton of golf.