Money & Me: ‘Unlike Rory McIlroy, I lost money as a professional golfer’

Simon Dunn paid off debt accumulated as a professional golfer and invested his savings in a wellness retreat

Simon Dunn, co-founder of The Lighthouse Retreat in Ras Al Khaimah, says his best investment has been in his health and wellness. Photo: Ruel Pableo for The National
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Former tour professional golfer Simon Dunn is co-founder of The Lighthouse Retreat, set beside Ras Al Khaimah’s Al Hamra Golf Club.

A Briton born in Dubai, he was diagnosed with extreme hypertension at the age of 38 and prescribed blood-pressure medicine.

Mr Dunn was dissatisfied with his prognosis, so he visited wellness and detox retreats where results enabled him to reduce or stop most medicine, become fitter and inspired him to qualify as a yoga instructor.

Now 42, Mr Dunn previously worked for an Abu Dhabi energy company — where his wife continues as a director — and as general manager of Dubai storage and removals company Easytruck.

He lives in Ras Al Khaimah with his wife, a former Great Britain volleyball player, and their son, 11.

Where did money fit into your upbringing?

My father was from Scotland and mum originally from Malaysia. He was in the region in the 1970s with Ernst & Whinney (later Ernst & Young) as an accountant and partner.

Dubai was very different, but there were opportunities to travel, play sport and meet people. The business of golf and networking was always there.

I didn’t get pocket money and money wasn’t really discussed. In hindsight, probably more of a steer early on would have been good. But I wasn’t going to be an accountant — sport and being active have always been part of what I wanted to do.

I was going to be a tennis player and that morphed into being a golfer. I was playing both at a fairly high level.

I didn’t get pocket money and money wasn’t really discussed. In hindsight, probably more of a steer early on would have been good
Simon Dunn, co-founder of The Lighthouse Retreat

Did you have early jobs?

I caddied in the Dubai Desert Classic a couple of times, more for experience. I played my first professional event at 16, still an amateur but I qualified to get in. My spare time was about practising, playing and competing.

I always thought I was going to be this world-beating professional golfer. It didn’t really transpire that way, but I had great experiences, great opportunities.

I didn’t really think about the money; it was more about competing, to succeed. Unless you’re an absolute world beater, you end up having a proper job.

Is professional golf not always lucrative?

You live a lifestyle but you can be spending more than you’re making. I lost money in my career. It was a journeyman effort of trying to make a profit and do well.

If you can get inside the top 50 in the world for a year, you’re pretty much set for life. Stay inside the top 200 to 300 for an extended period, then you’re doing all right.

People see the glamour of professional sportsmen in terms of the really high earners … there are only so many Rory McIlroys.

About seven or eight years in, a lot of my peers in their late 30s/early 40s were coming to the end of decent careers and didn’t have much to show for it. That was a light-bulb moment.

I reached the top 600 in the world, not bad, but never quite broke through to those major ranks, so I’ve been working pretty much full time since 2008.

I’m still a professional in terms of status, but I don’t compete any more.

Simon Dunn believes you are the sum of what you’ve seen and done, so it's important to travel and experience something new. Photo: Ruel Pableo for The National

How did your retreat happen?

About five years ago, my wife and I had work burnout, mental burnout, some family things going on. She went to a retreat in Asia, then I went.

I’d been diagnosed with extreme hypertension, asthma since birth, was overweight and struggling with medication for blood pressure. That was the start of deciding our wellness and well-being was something we needed to protect and work more on.

We ended up going three or four times to different retreats for the next 18 months. Then it was like: “What if we bring this to the Middle East, make it more accessible for people in a similar situation?”

We took our favourite elements from different retreats, invested our savings and borrowed a bit. We’re the first full-time holistic wellness place in the Middle East.

Why would someone book in?

When you get into professional life, we’ve been told that when things don’t go well, you need to work harder. When you’re in a state of burnout, stress, fatigue, working harder is counterproductive.

We weren’t as healthy as we should be. It was about understanding there was another way — instead of trying to do more, try to quiet the mind, centre yourself and find balance. Once you get this balance, it allows you to be more productive. Sometimes you need to course correct.

We’ve been open just over a year. The majority (of clients) are upper management, C-suite. We’ve had famous fashion people with us and one of the female cast from Game of Thrones for 11 weeks.

What is your best investment?

My health and wellness. If I’d carried on with my general state of well-being, I’d be struggling.

My father died at 58; I wouldn’t want my son to go through that. Where I am now versus where I was then is a huge investment in the future.

First was going to wellness retreats — you’ve got to pay for these. That was the turnaround moment, getting myself back on a good path, understanding what I needed to do.

The Lighthouse Retreat is part of my wellness journey, trying to share an understanding and help people if they want somewhere more accessible and not going to break the bank.

How do you grow your funds?

We’ve got some savings, pensions, an investment portfolio, stuff we try and leave alone. It’s important to make this retreat work in these weird and difficult times. At the moment, everything is going into it.

We’ve got major plans in the next 12 to 18 months. We’re trying to get cash flow and investment into the business to take the next steps.

Do you have financial milestones?

Owning our home was important. You can make the property more yours.

It took a while to pay off debt from playing professional golf, an element from family and loans. That was a big moment, to be able to pay those off within a reasonable time and still be able to have a normal lifestyle.

Any cherished purchases?

During lockdown, we bought a second-hand two-man sauna and a chest freezer so we could do our own "fire and ice" detox at home, basically high heat and ice immersions.

We have the freezer full of water on a timer, good to go as an ice bath. We do that probably three or four times a week. There are health as well as mental benefits.

What do you think of money?

It’s a necessary evil, maybe success and being comfortable as a motivation.

I’m trying to see money as maybe an exchange of energy. It’s important and it’s needed, but it doesn’t rule us by any means.

Any financial lessons learned?

Being a professional golfer travelling the world … my spending was not as controlled as it should be because you’ve got hotels and flight tickets, you’re paying for what you have to do.

One year, I was committed to tour. I had a sponsorship deal and at the 11th hour, it was pulled. So I played a year on tour by credit card.

I had an amazing year in terms of experience but it took a long time to pay that off. I don’t regret it, it was part of my journey and learning.

What are you happy spending on?

Travel is a luxury, but in terms of our own sanity, it can be a necessity as well. It’s important to get away, experience something new.

You don’t have to go super luxury, you have opportunities to do things off the beaten track. We’ve gone more towards finding cool, unique experiences.

Giving our son as many experiences as we can is really important. I believe you are the sum of what you’ve seen and done.

What are your goals?

The success of this retreat. We’ve poured savings and loans into this. It’s intrinsically linked to our success and failure.

We could have carried on doing exactly what we were doing, not opening the business, not taking the risk and been comfortable. It is a spin of the wheel.

This is not about making a huge amount of turnover and profit … but if it’s something we can do to a level that we’re happy with, it was worth the risk.

We’re moving into corporate wellness, a leadership academy as well, but from a holistic standpoint, and then looking at locations for Lighthouse two and three.

Updated: March 14, 2022, 4:38 AM