From golf to banking: Neil Day of Simmons Bank
May 22-28, 2023
By Jay Edwards
I sat down recently for a conversation with Neil Day, a business development officer for Simmons Bank, in his west Little Rock office. It was our first meeting and to break the ice I told him that my daughter was about to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail, which led Neil to say he was from Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He told me he’d never hiked the 2000-mile trail but had crossed it many times as a boy growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I have probably crossed that trail while hiking other trails 100 times, Day said. “But I have never hiked it. I want to. There is a sticker on my car that has AT on it. It is a part of home.”
Before changing careers into banking, Day was a PGA teaching pro, who began playing the game at an early age. “My dad started playing when I was young and I wanted to be a part of what he was doing,” Day said. “It took a lot of convincing but he finally agreed one day to take me along. He had taken up the game later in life, years after playing football in college. I think when he was playing football he looked at golf as not a very masculine game. But when it hooked him he wanted to do it all the time. Then he introduced me to it and I took it from there. I started when I was 11, and it’s been part of my life ever since.”
North Carolina has many opportunities for young people to play golf competitively and Day took advantage. After high school he walked on at Elon University, where he played for a year.
“I realized I couldn’t balance golf, scholastics and fun,” Day said. “So, I chunked golf. After college I did a couple of corporate stints then moved back home. It was time to reset. I was still young enough, maybe 24 or 25. One day I went to lunch with the golf pro I grew up under and the next thing you know I was in the business, and I stayed for 21 years.” He still retains his membership as a PGA professional and currently sits on the board of First Tee of Central Arkansas.
Asked what brought him to Little Rock, Day said he was working at the Linville Golf Club in North Carolina when one day two members came in to play who were also members at the Country Club of Little Rock. “It was October and they walked in the golf shop and asked if I wanted to play with them,” Day recalled. “It was a slow day so I said sure. When we finished the round they asked me what my plans were for the winter, and if I had any interest in moving to Little Rock. Two weeks later I got a phone call from Darrell Shelton, the head pro at CCLR, who said, ‘I understand you are my new assistant.’ Two weeks after that I was here.”
It was while he was at CCLR that Day met his future wife.
“She was a lifeguard at the club’s pool,” Day said, “and still a student at the U of A. She walked into the golf shop one day, went behind the counter and pulled up the computer. Then she turned around, looked at me and said, ‘You must be new here.’ I was just staring at her, thinking, what does she think she’s doing? For her to march in the pro shop in a lifeguard outfit and act so nonchalant kind of threw me for a loop. Then she introduced herself and said, ‘You will be seeing quite a bit of me. Bye.’ And walked out. It wasn’t until next summer that I got the nerve to ask her out.”
In 2007 Day received his PGA membership, and he went back to North Carolina, to the Carmel Country Club as one of the two head professionals. After a year and a half, that lifeguard who had thrown him for a loop back in Little Rock was now his fiancé, and she was telling him to come back to Little Rock.
“I came back and called my network from CCLR and went out to Alotian for three seasons before taking a job as head pro at Diamante in Hot Springs Village,” Day said.
“I had been there four years when I got a call from Wes McNulty who said they needed some help at Pine Bluff Country Club. Wes wanted to rebuild the junior program, as well as women’s golf, and a couples or mixed league. He wanted to put the club back on the map of southeast golf. So, I went and was there for seven years, before the management of Simmons Bank called me and offered me a position here.”
It was the end of 2020 when Day said yes to Simmons, leaving the business of golf for the business of banking. Was it a difficult decision?
“It was an interesting decision,” he says. “I had never been presented with this kind of opportunity. I truly believe now was meant to come. Although I was working with Simmons in conjunction with some of their marketing and branding opportunities while I was still a PGA professional at Pine Bluff Country Club, I had no idea at the time what they were doing was kind of interviewing me, seeing what I was like in dealing with people and customers through my golf shop. I came to realize they understood the value of the network that I had built over the last 21 years here in Arkansas. They understood the respect I have for that network and hopefully, in return, the respect they have for me.”
Another factor that weighed into his decision to change careers was his family.
“I thought about the ages of my children,” he said, “and the amount of time I was working as a golf professional. Tuesday through Sunday, I didn’t take a day off. Monday I took off unless we had an outing. My wife had the first year and a half of my oldest son’s life, with me leaving before sunrise and getting home after sunset. It was tough. So, when the opportunity became available, I said this is the right thing.”
The timing of Day’s move coincided with a strong commitment to golf from his new employer. It had been announced on Feb. 11, 2020, that Simmons would become the title sponsor for the next eight years of The Simmons Bank Open for the Snedeker Foundation, a Korn Ferry event which was formerly the Nashville Golf Open.
“The Korn Ferry agreement came into existence right before COVID in 2020,” Day said. “The tournament venue was changed when we took it from Nashville down to Franklin to The Grove, an absolutely wonderful community. The access to the tournament is fantastic. All the branding Simmons was doing for this event and outside this event was well in motion. Mr. Makris has a very keen eye with the vision to match. He has the right marketing team in Stacey Martin and Elizabeth Machen, and their teams are phenomenal, as are the ideas that are currently being put into place. We get to see the results when we go to other markets for visits and when we go to the Simmons Open.”
In October of last year, it was announced that the tournament would be elevated to one of four events making up the expanded Korn Ferry Tour Finals in September, the 14th through 17th, at the Grove Club in College Grove, Tennessee, near Franklin and Murfreesboro.
The top 30 players on the season-long standings at the conclusion of the 2023 Korn Ferry Tour Championship will earn PGA TOUR membership for the 2024 season and Day believes that the competition on both tours is as strong as it’s ever been.
He says that today Team Simmons has seven pro golfers it sponsors, which includes PGA Tour professional Will Zalatoris, who, at 26, has finished 2nd in the Masters and PGA Championship, and tied for 2nd in the U.S. Open. Representing Team Simmons on the Korn Ferry Tour are Zack Fischer, Dawson Armstrong, Braden Thornberry and Kevin Dougherty. They also have two other very familiar names on the Champions Tour in Glen Day and Ken Duke.
Having spent so many years in the golf world it is easy for Day to appreciate where the game is today and what that means to Simmons as well as other large corporations across the country.
“You realize these young adults coming out today are so focused on the technology aspect of this,” he says. “They become students of what is AI telling them to do. Then, that information is taken back to the manufacturer of a golf club, ball, shoe or even shirt. Think about that. These players are influencing the retail world just by those small decisions. You go to the practice range and every player has a $30,000 trackman device and a $3,000 an hour coach. They have teams around them. Not like the old days when guys would throw their clubs in the trunk and drive off to the next place and sleep in a hotel.”