Golf’s ultimate CEO: Mark McCormack was the world’s first super-agent, and his methods stand up today
Betsy Nagelsen McCormack
In 1959, the year before Mark H. McCormack shook hands with Arnold Palmer and agreed to manage his affairs, Heinz paid Arnold $500 to use his likeness in a year’s worth of ketchup ads. Forty-five years later, Mark had made agents part of the sports and entertainment culture, creating a conglomerate, international Management Group, that helped tiger woods earn more than $80 million in endorsements for the year.
I won 35 professional tennis titles in a 23-year career, and by the time I signed as a client with IMG in 1974–Mark and I married a dozen years later–he represented Arnold, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Andy north, Jerry Pate and Laura Baugh on the golf side and rod Laver and Bjorn Borg in the tennis division. He also handled the business affairs for race-car driver Jackie Stewart and skiing superstar
Jean-Claude Killy. He would later represent Greg Norman, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam, along with most of the top tennis players in the world and other key business and entertainment figures. But Mark never sought attention. If anything, he went out of his way to make sure he never eclipsed his clients, even though he became more financially successful than almost all of them.
“The client is the story, not the agent,” he would say. “We make money by helping the client make money. The second you become more important than the client you represent is the moment you need to get out of this business.”
That attitude, and penchant for anonymity, was why Mark could have a glass of wine with Sir Paul McCartney, or dinner with Barbara Walters and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and be known as “the older blond guy sitting with the celebrities.”
Mark’s book What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School was a No. 1 bestseller, and his monthly “Success Secrets” was a popular business letter in the 1980s because of the unflinching way he communicated his wisdom. If you liked sugarcoated and superfluous chatter, Mark was not your guy. As he said, “Get the bad news on the table first, so you can eliminate the emotions and face reality. Only then can you make intelligent, dispassionate decisions with all the facts in hand.”
‘WHATEVER YOU THINK IS FAIR’
Mark Spent Years Calling, meeting with and floating proposals to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, host of the British Open, and the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which runs a little event every summer called The Championships at Wimbledon. A lot of people wanted those historic institutions as clients, but most people gave up after being rebuffed one, two or 10 times. Mark never did. He continued to stay in touch with both clubs, and he never stopped proposing new ways to help the members. It took years for Mark to earn the trust of the people at the R&A and All England, but once the members realized that he wasn’t going away, they became clients.
When Mark was developing a new partnership deal with the R&A, we had the entire executive committee down to our Isleworth home in Florida for a weekend. They had meetings in our living room every morning and played golf in the afternoons. Toward the end of the meetings, after Mark had outlined an elaborate new program for official British Open sponsors, one of the R&A committeemen said, “Mark, what will IMG’s compensation be in this deal?”
Seven figures would have been reasonable, especially given how much work Mark had done. But he just smiled and said, “It’s the same as all our deals: Whatever you think is fair.”
In one disarming sentence, Mark encapsulated the secret to his business success. Not only did he lob the “How much?” question back into his client’s court, he let them know that he trusted them to do the right thing, just as they trusted him to represent them. Mark realized that his persistence had gotten him in the door. He wasn’t going to jeopardize that relationship over the commission structure of one deal.
ON THE ‘TO DO’ LIST: SLEEP
MARK WORKED HARDER THAN any normal human I’d ever met, and he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Eighteen-hour workdays were normal, and he organized his life in a yellow legal pad, with every day segmented in 15-minute increments. On the left side of the pad were the people he had to call that day, and on the right were the things he hoped to accomplish. He was so meticulous in his organization that he even wrote “sleep” in his “to do” section and kept track of the hours, as if rest were something you accomplished, not something you did when you got tired.
Mark would always prioritize his to-do lists so that the things he did not enjoy (or the things he dreaded, like reprimanding someone, which caused him great anxiety) were near the top. He figured that if you didn’t get the bad stuff over with early, you’d be more likely to put it off, or let its presence on the page cast a shadow over the rest of the items.
Mark’s legal pad earned him a lot of snickers over the years. At Wimbledon one year, Mark was photographed sitting in the stands with Tom Cruise, who was in London shooting “Eyes Wide Shut.” In some of the photos, Mark was holding his legal pad.
“What were you checking off?” I asked him. “Was ‘Enjoy a little tennis with Tom’ on your to-do list?”
Mark never abandoned his obsession with time management, though he became a lot more flexible in later years. He also improved his transitions after we were married. Because Mark was so time-conscious, he had a tendency to dismiss people with the kind of abruptness that left them wondering what they had done wrong. We would have friends over for tennis or golf, and when the game was over, Mark would shake hands and say, “Good match, goodbye,” and he would be gone. No small talk, no “Come back soon,” just a “Thanks, now off you go.” Mark would turn, check the item off his list and march into his office, leaving me to pick up the relationship pieces.
After pointing this out to him several times, I finally appealed to his practical side. “Mark, all the goodwill you’re generating by spending time with these people is lost when you turn on your heel and walk away. People feel dismissed. That’s insulting.”
He put up a halfhearted argument but eventually came around and became much better at transitioning in and out of settings.
After a while, everyone had fun with the legal pad. One day Mark was playing golf with Arnold and cartoonist Hank Ketcham, who created Dennis the Menace. As usual, Mark took his legal pad onto the course. As Mark was playing a shot, Hank snatched the pad and hid it in Mark’s golf bag.
Two holes later, Mark started looking around in a state bordering on panic. Hank said, “What are you looking for, Mark?”
“I can’t find my legal pad,” Mark said. “It was right here. I’m going to have to go back and find it.”
Hank put on a great show of helping Mark look. After a couple of minutes, Hank unzipped Mark’s golf bag, threw up his hands, and said, “Whoa, here it is! Sheez, Mark, if this thing is that important, you should think twice about bringing it onto the golf course.”
Mark knew he’d been had. And he loved every second of it.
The year We Entertained Tom Cruise at Wimbledon, I saw Mark make a rare scheduling gaffe. In fact, he forgot about dinner plans he’d made with Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, who was in London for the matches. After a long day of tennis, Tom said, “Let’s meet for dinner.”
As the appetizers arrived, Mark got a stricken look. “Oh, no,” he said. “I forgot to call Bob Kraft.”
Then, after a moment of thinking, Mark said, “If I tell him I forgot to call, he’ll feel slighted. If I don’t call, he’ll be angry … so I’m going to tell him that his hotel didn’t give him my message.”
“You can’t do that,” Tom said. “Sure I can, as long as you back me up.” Before anyone could object, Mark was on the phone with Bob saying, “I can’t believe you didn’t get the message. Please, come join us. Tom Cruise and Betsy are here. We’re waiting on you.”
Twenty minutes later Bob joined us, and face was saved all around.
I remain deeply opposed to lying, and I told Mark as much after this incident. But his response was classic. He said, “Lies told to hurt others are always bad. Lies told to make you look like something you’re not are equally bad. But small lies told to make others feel good are not that bad. And, by the way, your new hairstyle looks great.”
I was never sure if that last line was a lie or not. I didn’t ask. He’d made his point.
THE ART OF MANAGING DELEGATION
When We Were Building our house at Isleworth, I went out to the construction site one day and found Mark walking around the grounds inspecting the wiring.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m checking the wiring.”
“Do you know anything about wiring a house?”
“No,” he said. Then he nodded toward the electricians working on the other side of the house. “But they don’t know that.”
At IMG’s peak, Mark had 2,500 employees in 81 offices in 30 countries. Whether you’re a parent trying to manage a house-hold, or the CEO of a multinational company worth $750 million, delegation is a lesson everybody must learn. But Mark’s unique twist on the lesson was on managing delegation.
More times than I can count, he would get up at 4 a.m. to call London to ask one of his executives a question that could have waited until a decent hour. Mark did it, not because he needed an immediate answer to the question, but because he wanted the people in the London office to know that he was beating some of them to work despite the five-hour time difference. This was his way of saying, “I’m delegating a lot of responsibility to you, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention.”
He did the same thing with contracts. In the first year after turning a particular client over to a new agent, Mark would review every comma and clause of every contract. The next year, he would skim the contracts, making a few notes here and there. By year three, he would read one out of every three or four contracts. And by year five, he was making spot checks of random correspondence.
He never fully walked away. Everyone who worked for Mark knew that he could materialize at any moment and ask a pointed question about a particular deal. That was his managerial gift. Mark delegated as effectively as anyone in business, because everyone knew he was still watching.
Mark was equally savvy at recruiting executives into his business, consistently finding the brightest candidates to fill the ranks at IMG. Throughout, Mark never worried about being the most talented person in the room. He wanted to surround himself with talent and motivate people to be their very best.
Even though he delegated well, Mark had a habit of making sure little things were done right, and it became the stuff of legend at IMG. Everyone in the company had heard stories about Mark calling someone on the other side of the world and having a stern half-hour conversation about a spelling error in an external memo. His pet peeve was Wimbledon, which often got spelled “Wimbeldon” or “Wimbleton.”
Nothing prompted an eruption quicker, and all the IMG staffers knew it.
GETTING A ‘YES’
Conversations With Mark were like chess games, and he was always three or four moves ahead of his opponent. He knew exactly what to say to get a desired result.
In the early years of his relationship managing Arnold Palmer, Mark wanted him to attend a meeting with a group of investors who were interested in opening a chain of Arnold Palmer dry cleaners. Mark also knew that Arnold would be predisposed to laugh him out of the room if he brought this idea up out of nowhere. So, Mark sat down with Arnold and went through a series of silly requests.
“The Hot Springs Kiwanis Club wants you to be the grand marshal of its Christmas parade,” he said.
Arnold was never someone who said “no” easily, but he said, “Mark, I’m really tired. I think we should pass on that one.”
Mark then said, “Sports Illustrated wants two days to shoot a pictorial.”
“Sorry, I’m really whipped,” Arnold said. Three or four more rejections of these requests and Arnold started feeling sorry for Mark, just as Mark knew he would. Then Mark threw out the idea of the dry cleaners.
After a heavy sigh, Arnold said, “OK, but I’m afraid people are going to be coming up to me in the clubhouse and saying I ruined their pants.”
By the late ’60s, there were about 100 Arnold Palmer Cleaning Centers around the country.
JOY OF WINNING; FEAR OF LOSING
Mark Was Always A Fierce competitor. In his speeches, he said, “Love winning more than you hate losing. The difference is subtle, but there is a difference. One is driven by joy, and the other is inspired by fear. Striving for the joy of winning fills the mind with positives, but fear of losing clouds the mind and leads to bad decision-making. That’s why I believe that you should never personalize a contest.”
As different as he and I were in many ways, we shared a love of competition. Mark’s competitiveness even extended to games with his clients. (He’d played college golf and qualified for the 1958 U.S. Open.) Arnold loves telling a story about a casual round he played with Mark. Arnold hit a shot into some casual water and took a legitimate drop.
Mark said, “You can’t do that.” Arnold said, “Sure, I can. It’s casual water.”
Arnold went ahead with the drop. Furious, Mark turned to the dozens of people who had walked out to watch them and said, “I want you all to see this: Arnold Palmer, the greatest golfer of his generation, cheats!”
Mark was equally competitive in his business practices, coaxing people when they needed it, yelling when it was necessary, and always striving to win. He said, “To win, you have to make sacrifices, and you have to acknowledge those sacrifices, be realistic about them. You have to say to yourself, I want to be the best, and this is what I’m willing to give. It’s a Faustian bargain many people aren’t willing to acknowledge, let alone make.”
DEALING WITH A LOSS
The Monday After Phil Mick-elson made a double bogey on the final hole of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, I walked into the Starbucks near our home and heard a voice say, “Hi, Betsy.”
Tiger Woods was standing in line waiting on a latte. I gave him a huge hug and said, “I hate asking, but did you watch any of the Open?”
“Every second,” he said. “I normally don’t, but as my punishment [for missing the cut] I watched every shot.”
It was the first time I’d seen Tiger since his father had passed away earlier in the year, and I recognized the look: In May 2003, four months after Mark’s heart had stopped in his doctor’s office during a dermatological procedure, leaving him comatose, he passed away.
I wanted to tell Tiger that it would get better, that his love for his dad would only get stronger as the vise of grief eased. But there was nothing I could say to make it better that day. I knew, because I had heard the same things said to me. Losing someone is a lonesome road, one we walk in our own time and in our own way. At the time, Tiger was in the middle of his journey. I had every confidence that he would come out of the trek a stronger, wiser and better man.
On my way back home, my phone rang, and I found out Mark had just been elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame. I couldn’t help thinking about what he would have said at that moment. I can only imagine, but in my mind, he would be cocking his head, a crooked smile creeping onto his face. Then he would say, “I didn’t realize missing the cut in the 1958 Open was such an achievement. Thanks for that. It’s a memory I’ll keep forever.”
Mark McCormack will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., on Oct. 30, with an introduction by Arnold Palmer. For more on McCormack, see the Golf Digest Interview from June 1998 by clicking on golfdigest.com/interviews.
A McCormack sampler
“My success is simple: I do things for athletes, artists and institutions that they don’t have the time, expertise or inclination to do themselves.”
“It’s important in business and in life to be known as an honest person. It’s also important to be known as a good person. When those two clash, choose being good over absolute honesty.”
“Nobody can do everything. But you don’t need to let those you’re delegating to know that.”
“Personalize the conflict, and egos start conflicting with sound professional judgment.”
“Concentrating on the big jobs when the stakes are high and obvious is relatively easy. Concentrating equally well on small things is, over time, what makes a winner.”
“People’s appreciation for something you’ve done is directly proportionate to how much work they think you put into it. If you make something difficult look too easy, people won’t get the same satisfaction as if they think you struggled.”
“A lot of times winners are just those who are still around after everyone else gives up.”
“Job skills are not an end in themselves, but the raw material from which you shape your achievements.”
“Great champions in sports are not that different from the very best executives in the business world. Both have an almost insatiable desire to win.”
“What people really want is not always what they seem to want, and what you can really do for them is not necessarily what you originally thought it was.”
“All of us must play the hand we’re dealt. We can enhance natural talents with education, practice, concentration and will. But it isn’t until you’re pushed beyond what you think are your limits that you realize just how much strength you have.”
“I have the greatest job in the world. I go to every major sporting event, travel the world, and the greatest athletes and artists of all time are my clients and my friends. Most people would pay a fortune to do what I do.”
“I hope people understand that my approach to life is not the only worthwhile approach. The world is a big place. We cannot, finally, know the depth or quality of another person’s experience, and we should never presume to think ourselves more inherently worthy just because we try harder. The goal is to be as demanding of ourselves as we choose to be, yet tolerant of others whose priorities are different.”
AMERICA’S 50 GREATEST TEACHERS (as ranked by their peers) *Teachers in green are members of the Golf Digest Professional Staff
1. BUTCH HARMON, Butch Harmon School of Golf, Henderson, NV; 707-777-2444
2. DAVID LEADBETTER, David Leadbetter Golf Academy at ChampionsGate, Davenport, FL; 407-787-3330
3. JIM MCLEAN, Jim McLean Golf School at Doral G. Resort & Spa, Miami; 305-591-6409
4. HANK HANEY, Hank Haney Golf Ranch, McKinney, TX; 972-542-8800; ESPN Golf Schools; 800-642-5528
5. RICK SMITH, Rick Smith Golf Academy at Treetops Resort, Treetops Village, MI; 888-873-3867; Tiburon, Naples, FL
6. JIM FLICK, TaylorMade Learning Center, Carlsbad, CA; 888-546-3542
7. MIKE MCGETRICK, McGetrick Golf Academy at Green Valley Ranch G.C., Denver; 800-494-1818
8. DAVE PELZ, Dave Pelz Scoring Game School, Spicewood, TX; 800-833-7370
9. CHUCK COOK, Chuck Cook Golf Academy, Austin, 800-336-6158
10. CRAIG SHANKLAND, Under Par Golf Academy, Daytona Beach, FL; 386-212-4364
11. MANUEL DE LA TORRE, Milwaukee C.C., River Hills, WI; 414-352-5876
12. JACK LUMPKIN, Sea Island Golf Learning Center, St. Simons Is., GA; 912-638-5119
13. DR. GARY WIREN, Trump International G.C., W. Palm Beach, FL; 561-626-4176
14. BOB TOSKI, Toski-Battersby Golf Learning Center, Coconut Creek, FL; 954-975-2045
15. DR. JIM SUTTIE, Jim Suttie Golf Academy, Cog Hill G. & C.C., Lemont IL; 800-765-3838
16. JIM HARDY, Jacobsen Hardy Group, Houston
17. MIKE HEBRON, Smithtown Landing C.C., Smithtown, NY; 631-979-6534
18. RANDY SMITH, Royal Oaks C.C., Dallas; 214-691-0339
19. PETER KOSTIS, Kostis-McCord Learning Center, Scottsdale; 480-502-1800
20. CRAIG HARMON, Oak Hill C.C., Rochester, NY; 585-381-1900
21. MIKE BENDER, Mike Bender Golf Academy, Lake Mary, FL; 407-321-0444
22. MARTIN HALL, Ibis G. & C.C., Palm City, FL; 561-624-8922
23. LAIRD SMALL, Pebble Beach (CA) Golf Academy; 831-622-8650
24. JIMMY BALLARD, Ballard Swing Connection, Key Largo, FL; 800-999-6664
25. MAC O’GRADY, Palm Springs, CA
26. PHIL RODGERS, Carlton Oaks C.C., San Diego; 858-453-1483
27. TODD ANDERSON, Sea Island Golf Learning Center, St. Simons Is., GA; 912-638-5119
28. MIKE MALASKA, Superstition Mtn. (Az) G. & C.C., 602-502-4142
29. HANK JOHNSON, Greystone G. & C.C., Birmingham, AL; 205-980-5200
30. DICK HARMON, Dick Harmon School of Golf, Houstonian G.C., Richmond, TX;
T31. MIKE LABAUVE, The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa, Scottsdale; 480-624-1618
T31. RICK MARTINO, PGA Learning Center, Port St. Lucie, FL; 800-800-4653
T31. DEAN REINMUTH, Meadows Del Mar G.C., San Diego; 858-756-2240
34. PIA NILSSON, The Legacy Golf Resort, Phoenix; 602-482-8983
35. MIKE ADAMS, Palm Beach Polo & C.C. Wellington, FL; 561-602-2476
36. DAVID GLENz, David Glenz Golf Academy, Franklin, NJ; 888-794-6439
37. PEGGY KIRK BELL, Pine Needles Lodge & G.C., Southern Pines, NC; 910-692-7111
38. ROB AKINS, Ridgeway C.C., Germantown, TN; 901-359-4669
39. JOHN ELLIOTT JR., Golden Ocala (FL) Golf and Equestrian Club; 352-895-6508
40. FRED GRIFFIN, Grand Cypress Academy of Golf, Orlando; 800-790-7377
41. CHARLIE SORRELL, Sorrell School of Golf at Golf Meadows, Stockbridge, GA; 770-957-8786
42. DARRELL KESTNER, Deepdale G.C., Manhassett, NY; 516-627-7880
43. BEN DOYLE, Golf Club at Quail Lodge, Carmel, CA; 831-624-2526
44. BILL HARMON, Toscana C.C., Indian Wells, CA
45. GALE PETERSON, Sea Island Golf Learning Center, St. Simons Island, GA; 912-638-5119
46. MARK WOOD, Mark Wood Golf Academy, Hamilton Farm G.C., Gladstone, NJ 908-901-4000
47. BILL DAVIS, Jupiter Hills C., Tequesta, FL; 561-746-5228
T48. TIM MAHONEY, Talking Stick G.C., Scottsdale; 602-529-5954
T48. LYNN MARRIOTT, The Legacy Golf Resort, Phoenix; 602-482-8983
50. TOM NESS, Chateau Elan Winery & Resort, Braselton, GA; 770-596-2213
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