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Management: a question of balance
From his own experiences as a past client of IMG - and a highly satisfied one at that - the author reflects on the recent surprise defection of Rory McIlroy from his erstwhile management team at ISM

The recent parting of the ways between Rory McIlroy, the young Irish wizard, and his management company, ISM, caused much interest and conversation. But why, oh why, did so many people twitter, passing on all sorts of caustic messages trying to decipher something from those odd mutterings that would suggest a great disharmony? Some newspapers seemed to be making the point that this was unique - how could this young man suddenly leave the team that had done him so well, creating the beginning of a fortune?

Agents and management teams are not as new as many people may think. Although I never played golf with Old Tom Morris, I have been around long enough to have discovered much about golf. The first real golf manager was an American called Fred Corcoran. Rather like Colonel Tom Parker with Elvis Presley, he had one client - Samuel Jackson Snead. They got together in the 1930s and he did very well for ‘The Slammer'. He went on to be the first manager of a US Ryder Cup team and it wasn't long before he became a major figure in the fledgling professional golf tour, which later developed round the world.

Mark McCormack picked up the baton from Corcoran when he got together with Arnold Palmer. Within a short time Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player had joined them at McCormack's International Management Group (IMG) and they became the ‘Big 3' of golf. It was McCormack who revolutionised that side of golf and they were all very successful until Nicklaus left, allegedly because he thought he was earning too much money for IMG and he could better look after his own business affairs.

Pioneering spirit: Mark McCormack founded IMG on the basis of a handshake with Arnold Palmer - and so was born the modern sports agent
(Photography by

Some players have long-term relations with their caddies, too, but there is nearly always a moment when they fall out. It's usually about money, a player's loss of form, or familiarity. How many times over the last 30 or 40 years have seemingly great partnerships broken up, not too acrimoniously it must be said - at least not in public - but behind the scenes a lot of muttering goes on?

The excuses made for any break-up are many: “We've grown apart”, “We will always remain friends”, “No one else is involved” etc, etc. Some players go through caddies almost on a monthly basis. One reads of as much as 10% being given to the caddie if the player wins a tournament. I think my hand would be trembling too much to write a cheque for $100,000 even though I may have won a million, knowing full well that along with his $100,000 a certain amount would be going to the Treasury and there would be a lot of presents for the wife.

Chubby Chandler at ISM hasn't been so lucky of late. Graeme McDowell, winner of the US Open in 2010, and Ernie Els both left the safety of his nest before McIlroy quit, leaving Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke as the two leading lights of the company. Without being too unkind, they are perhaps tiptoeing towards the end of their wonderful careers, so who will replace the wondrous Irishmen?

I had an association with Mark McCormack for over 25 years. It was a rather strange arrangement. I, imagining that I was a little cleverer than I really was, had been courted by him. He'd been approached by the ABC Television Network in the United States to see if I would be available to work for them alongside the BBC. I was wary. I had been doing rather well and I knew he would wish to take a percentage, but a percentage of what? Everything one earned or just the business deals he did? How would the deal be structured?

He asked what I thought. I added quite a bit on to what I really thought would be reasonable, thinking that would be the end of it, but no, he added another few thousand and said “Are you sure you are happy with that amount?” I said yes.

“In that case, would you be happy for me to take 25% of whatever new business I get for you, providing you wish to do it?” How could I possibly say no? It was a glorious partnership for over 20 years and, I think, a unique one. I doubt whether many of his clients ever had that sort of association.

I once spoke to Gary Player, asking whether or not, if he had to start again, would he still let IMG look after his affairs. He said, without pausing for breath, he would, even if they took another 10%. There's your answer, but we mustn't forget Tiger Woods, who was with IMG for well over a decade, perhaps the most lucrative time of his wonderful career. He was truly the goose that laid the golden eggs, and I am sure it was painful for IMG when he decided to leave and look after his own affairs.

Some think that going alone is easy - get a good accountant, someone you trust, someone who understands a bit about golf - but I can assure you it isn't. There is an old boys' network; there are certain areas and negotiations that need someone with a strong background in the world of golf. The game is a mirror of life - business associations, friendships, marriages. Some last, some don't. You've got to get it right to be happy and make it work. 'Twil ever be thus.

January 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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