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Mark McCormack made golf as we know it
Mark McCormack died on Friday May 16, 2003 after falling into a four month long coma following cardiac arrest. He was probably the most important and significant figure in 20th century golf and possibly the most pivotal figure in the history of the game.

When he met Arnold Palmer in 1960, Mark McCormack finished off what Col. James Ogilvy Fairlie began when he persuaded Tom Morris to Prestwick in 1851. It was Fairlie who started the Open Golf Championship with Tom Morris but it was McCormack and Arnold Palmer who made it the premier event in world golf.

Looking back over the McCormack years one is left in awe of his achievements. These are best seen when one considers an event like the Deutsche Bank SAP Open played at Hamburg last weekend. The event was 'open' only in name and run only as a vehicle for corporate business advertising. It was staged by the European Tour on a fifth-rate course but nevertheless attracted the best players in Europe and Tiger Woods, the world's number one player.

Pod Harrington won the event, after a playoff with Tomas Bjorn. Pod collected more money for his efforts than the majority of pro players will earn in a year. Tiger Woods is reported to have pocketed $2.5 million for simply turning up in Hamburg. Not only did Mark McCormack's company, International Management Group, advise the European Tour in putting together the event, it also represented the majority of those playing in it as well as the awful course hosting it and the sponsors paying for it. Through its sister company, Trans World International, it also served up the TV coverage of it as well as the hospitality facilities at the event itself.

I don't know if it sells the franchise of the port-a-loo on course rest-room facilities but I would be astonished if it did not. IMG has a finger in every aspect of every pie and it should surprise no-one because Mark McCormack made the pie.

Mark McCormack was born in Chicago 72 years ago. His father, who published farm journals, claimed descent from the 18th century philosopher David Hume, leader of the Scots cultural rennaisence. He believed that he had inherited his great expectations and his work ethic from his mother, who ran her household with fastidious military precision.

After winning his high school golf championship he attended the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg in Virginia. It was here that he realised that his golfing ambitions were unrealistic even although he did subsequently qualify for the US Open. McCormack studied law and upon graduation took up practice in Cleveland. His knowledge of business law, and contract law in particular was what propelled him into his association with Palmer, who was already a celebrity, if a relatively penurious one, on the pro golf circuit in America.

Already contracted to Heinz, who were paying him $500 and as much beans and ketchup as he could consume, Palmer, and doubtless those close to him, embraced McCormack's proposal to represent him with relief and enthusiasm.

The McCormack/Palmer partnership began in the early 60s when American sport was being transformed by television. Sportsmen were becoming as familiar as film stars in the nations' households but without comparable financial reward. All that would change when McCormack went to work on Palmer. Soon Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus were added to the stable and when IMG moved into tennis, Rod Laver was added to the list.

Numbers increased and without IMG endorsement it became difficult to run a tournament in either tennis or golf. Indeed, the simple solution was to have IMG run your event and guarantee the presence of the stars of the sport and the exposure of TV coverage. Such was the rate of growth and both the horizontal and vertical business integration within IMG that it became indispensable to both promoters and stars alike.

American sport in general but golf in particular was suddenly awash with money. When IMG opened offices in London in the 1970s the agents did not have to work hard to find clients. If Wimbledon was not exactly an institution before IMG arrived it quickly became one. Similarly, when McCormack arrived in St Andrews to discuss what could be made of the Open with Keith MacKenzie, the championship was transformed from the oldest to the greatest championship in the world effortlessly.

Today, IMG represents just about every sporting institution, the overwhelming majority of sports stars and is responsible for the running of most major sporting events. It has revenues of over $1 billion a year, has 85 offices in 35 countries with over 3,000 employees. It represents people as diverse as Tiger Woods and the Pope - although, come to think of it they are not so diverse after all, both apparently being in close contact with The Almighty. But it also represents politicians, celebrities' great and small, models and opera singers as well as football teams, the players and their wives.

There can be no question that Mark McCormack, more than any other individual or even institution has shaped the form of modern golf. Through the period from his handshake agreement with Palmer that led him to abandon his law practice in Cleveland to the present day, golf has become not only the greatest participant sport but also one of the world's great growth industries.

In the process the game has been transformed utterly but not everyone is prepared to acknowledge that a terrible beauty has been born.

Mark McCormack was widely known as 'Mark the Shark' for the ruthlessness of his business dealings - certainly he had a no-holds barred attitude that is revealed in his many books. It would be an understatement to say that he was not universally loved - but then few successful people are and not always because of blind ambition or even halitosis.

Many argued that because of the diversity of his businesses there were often conflicts of interests in the frequently occurring situations when IMG was creating and controlling the event, managing the sportsmen, representing the sponsors and producing the telecasts. Surely they had a point.

Mark McCormack was also ruthless when challenged in his control. When Jack Nicklaus decided that he might be better off representing himself when he realised how much more Palmer was making from endorsements than he was, McCormack was far from magnanimous in his response. He said: 'Jack felt that Arnold was getting all the adulation and he was getting short shrift. He could only blame one of two things for that. One, his appearance, attitude and upbringing; two, he could blame me for favouring Arnold. Choosing the latter was the easier thing to do.'

He was even harder on Greg Norman whom he described as a 'graceless ingrate' and a 'choker' on his leaving IMG. Norman's subsequent business success must have surely rankled.

No one will ever be able to replace McCormack. Such was his control and so forceful his personality that it is doubtful if the empire that he created can sustain itself without his overall control for he gave his managers a great deal of latitude in their dealings. But there are those who doubt that the overall structure of pro sport he has been responsible for can be sustained. The emergence of super-teams and super-stars has resulted in skewed distribution of resources that is reducing competition and uncertainty, the very bread and butter of sport. It is surely an anomaly that Palmer remains, in retirement, one of the world's top earning sportsmen. The most pessimistic would argue that in his structuring of modern pro sport McCormack created a monster that will yet consume itself in a serious downturn in the economy.

Few leave the world a significantly changed place through their efforts. McCormack certainly changed the face of golf - whether for good or ill only time will tell. He certainly created a great many very rich men whose only attribute in life was to hit a golf ball well. He was not creative, he was a mover and shaker as his countrymen say, but in the process of moving and shaking golf he left an indelible impression and the game will never be quite the same again.

©    19 - MAY 2003

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