News & Opinion

Golf titan traces his path to Carnoustie

Several years ago during an interview for a book I was writing about former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, golf-industry veteran Duke Butler argued that the most important shot hit in golf in 1969 was Orville Moody's 2-foot putt at the last hole to win the U.S. Open. 

Moody was shaky, at best, with the short stick. Had he missed, he would've forced a playoff that would have included, among others, Beman. That putt, Butler contends, changed Beman's fate as well as the Tour's. Had Beman won the playoff the next day, he would've earned a lifetime Tour exemption. Most likely, he would've played until eligible for the senior circuit at age 50 and never would have been interested in succeeding Joe Dey as commissioner in 1974.

"The world of golf would've been significantly different," Butler said.

The same could be said if a 19-year-old college student working as a steward at the 1968 British Open hadn't had the chutzpah to approach Mark McCormack, the founder and chairman of IMG and the man most responsible for turning it into a mega-watt sports behemoth as the agent of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.

Alastair Johnston was stationed behind Carnoustie’s 18th green at the gate to the entrance to the clubhouse. He remembers being elbowed out of the way by Player's escorts as they made way for the newly crowned champion, and that's how he had a badge with access to be in the same vicinity as McCormack while Player met with the media. The father of Johnston's roommate at the time was a Carnoustie member serving on a committee and asked them to work as stewards, or what Americans commonly call a marshal. Johnston recognized McCormack, who saw an untapped market and pioneered an entire industry, taking Palmer from golfer to sports personality to international brand. McCormack wore a raincoat and held a briefcase under one arm and stood on the steps of a caravan that doubled as the R&A's offices that week. Johnston had one more year to go at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, but that didn't stop him and his youthful exuberance from approaching McCormack and declaring, "If you want to set up shop over here in Scotland and the U.K., I'm your guy."

The encounter lasted all of 45 seconds, but it changed Johnston's life. McCormack, whose middle name was Hume after the Scottish philosopher David Hume, had a soft spot for Scots and was in high spirits since Player, one of his leading men, had just claimed the Claret Jug. McCormack gave Johnston his business card. Feeling a rush of adrenaline, Johnston lost track of time and failed to find his friends, who left without him. He had to take a train home by himself.

"But I was on a high," he said.

By the time Johnston mailed McCormack a letter a few months later, to his everlasting dismay, IMG had opened a London office and hired Martin Sorrell, who went on to launch WPP, the world's largest advertising and public-relations firm. Johnston's letter expressed his interest in coming to America but highlighted the fact that he needed a sponsor to obtain a visa. Did McCormack know of anyone who would like to hire him?

"Deep down, I was thinking and hoping he'd say, 'Come work for me,' " Johnston said.

McCormack did, in fact, write back and told Johnston that if he made his way to the U.S., he would find a job for him. So, Johnston sold his car, bought a plane ticket and flew to New York. He slept at a YMCA, took a Greyhound bus to Cleveland the next day and showed up at McCormack's office, saying, "I'm here. What can I do for you?"

There were only about 20 IMG employees at the time, and Johnston started out working in the mailroom and file room and summarizing contracts. 

"It was the summer of '69," Johnston said. "It was Woodstock and [Ted] Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. It was the [Charles] Manson murders and [Neil] Armstrong landing on the moon and Vietnam. It was a tumultuous time in America." 

Not everyone saw this as the start of a wonderful adventure that would give him a front-row seat to sporting history and a major role in shaping the future of golf as we know it. Johnston's father wrote him that this sports-management job never would amount to anything and he needed to return home and become a chartered accountant. Johnston obeyed and spent three years working for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. But in 1972, he returned to IMG, and he has spent the past 46 years there. 

Johnston has attended every British Open since 1972, leaving Royal Lytham in 1974 by train with the Claret Jug by his side when Player, now his client, won the title for a third time. Johnston headed up IMG Golf when the company signed Tiger Woods, began handling Palmer's business interests in 1976, and he brought the Skins Game and later the PNC Father-Son Challenge to life.

When McCormack died in 2003, Johnston was promoted to IMG's co-CEO and assumed responsibility for the R&A, a relationship that remains ongoing. The onetime steward behind the 18th green negotiated the British Open's TV rights in 2015, including a 12-year deal with NBC/Golf Channel that doubled the fee to $50 million per year, according to Sports Business Daily. In short, Johnston, whose title is vice chairman of IMG, an Endeavor company, has become one of the most influential and powerful people in golf, and it all began at Carnoustie 50 years ago.

"You know, I still pinch myself," Johnston said. "I've said this before: I'm absolutely the poster boy for the American dream, and Arnold Palmer painted it. I was just a kid from Glasgow, Scotland, for heaven’s sake, and ended up working for an American icon."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak