The man who invented modern golf
World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Mark McCormack reshaped all of sports
October 29, 2006
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Neshannock High School is located north of New Castle , which in the late 1960s was a dying but not-yet-dead mill town, one of many once-booming steelmaking communities that clung to the river valleys of Western Pennsylvania and clogged the blue skies with acrid smoke from the blast furnaces and smelters that muted the mid-day sun. It was a place where people worked hard.
When it came time for the annual school photos at Neshannock, scrubbed young faces put on their Sunday best and sat for pictures taken by Chuck Tanner, a major league baseball player who later went on to manage the “We Are Fam-a-lee” Pittsburgh Pirates to the World Series championship in 1979. But in the late 1960s, Tanner, like many professional athletes, needed an off-season job. He pulled out his camera and said, “Smile for the birdie.”
Free agency had yet to come to the team sports, and athletes were just beginning to cash in on endorsement deals. Paychecks were a few zeroes short of what today’s players take home. Can you imagine Alex Rodriguez working an off-season job to make ends meet? Just as the days of when steel was king in Western Pennsylvania have disappeared like a puff of smoke, gone, too, are the days when professional athletes could make only about the same annual salary as a steelworker who had a good year of overtime.
Two people are most responsible for the shift on the economic landscape of athletes. One was Marvin Miller, the former negotiator for the United Steelworkers union who, as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, helped overturn the reserve clause and ushered in free agency. The Seitz decision in 1975 released Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally from their teams, with whom they no longer had contracts but were still bound. As a result, salaries exploded.
The guy with whom Miller shares the billing as the most important person in the economic history of sports isMark McCormack, the founder of International Management Group, the Cleveland-based agency less than 100 miles from New Castle that literally invented modern sports management. McCormack started IMG with a handshake deal with Arnold Palmer, a Western Pennsylvania native, in 1960 and added a guy named Tiger Woods in 1996. In between IMG had Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Nick Price andCurtis Strange — all at one time the best player in the world.
On Oct. 30, McCormack enters the World Golf Hall of Fame, and it would not be an exaggeration to say he should have a room of his own. Like it or not, virtually everything about modern sports owes a debt of gratitude to McCormack. He is either responsible or to blame — depending on how you look at things — for the state of sports today. McCormack realized the marketing potential of TV before anyone else, and he grasped the fact that the world was shrinking before anyone else. McCormack understood globalization before the word even existed.
Palmer is given credit for rescuing the British Open and restoring its prominence among the major championships when he went to play in the 1960 tournament at St. Andrews , finishing second that year and winning it in 1961 and ’62. But while it was Palmer’s presence that got the British Open back on the map, it was McCormack’s realization that an appearance overseas would open up a world of endorsement opportunities for Palmer. It was McCormack’s idea that Palmer play. In fact, until Woods came along, Palmer remained the highest-paid golfer through endorsement long after he was able to win tournaments. He is still in the top five.
Asked once about the difference in media attention to golf from when he was at the top of his game and what it was like during the peak of Tigermania in 1997, Palmer said: “I signed my first contract for $5,000. Tiger signed his first one for $50 million. A lot of things change.” Much of that change was because of McCormack.
After signing Palmer, McCormack, who played college golf at William and Mary before attending Yale Law School and was good enough to qualify for the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills (he missed the cut at 78-81), next signed Player and Nicklaus. But he didn’t stop there. McCormack enhanced their endorsement value by creating a made-for-TV event — “Big Three Golf” — that served as a marketing tool for both the game and his star players.
When McCormack expanded his company, it was always with an eye for the best. The first tennis player he signed was Rod Laver. The first hockey player was Gordie Howe and the first skier was Jean-Claude Killy. All were the best in their sport. He also grasped the concept of vertical integration, and there are some tournaments outside the U.S. where IMG has designed the golf course, built it, manages it, manages the tournament and, through its TV arm TWI, televises an event in which most of the competitors are IMG clients.
When McCormack created the World Golf Ranking in the mid 1980s it was derisively dismissed by some as an attempt by IMG to get more attention — and more money — to its non-American players, like Norman and Faldo. While that may be true, those players also deserved more attention, and it is also the truth that the World Ranking is now used by every major championship do help determine its field.
McCormack died in May of 2003 at the age of 72, several months after lapsing into a coma following a heart attack suffered during elective surgery. IMG has since been purchased by Ted Fortsmann, head of the investment firm Fortsmann Little & Co. Fortsmann purchased not just a company but a legacy. IMG will be remembered as the enterprise that began with a handshake between Mark McCormack and Arnold Palmer. And it will be remembered as the organization that provided the blue print for the economic future of sports.
Mark McCormack always had visions that were a little bigger, a little bolder than anyone else operating in his arena. He enters the World Golf Hall of Fame not just because of the name he made for himself, but also because of the name he made for others. Arnold Palmer would have become Arnold Palmer without Mark McCormack, and golf also would have grown. But neither would have gotten where they were going quite as quickly. McCormack saw the future and made it happen.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine