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Golfs Superagent Was Lawyer at Heart

A lot of people didnt like Mark McCormack.
Of course, a lot of those people were competing with him for sweet business deals ' and usually losing to him.
McCormack, the pioneering sports marketer and lawyer who died last week at age 72, inspired more back-channel vitriol than any agent I know. And agents are generally a vilified class. Thing is, McCormack invented the whole occupation.
I first met him in 1996 in the New York office of International Management Group, the mega-agency he built on the foundation of his 1960 relationship with Arnold Palmer. I was interviewing him for Golfweek, where I was then business editor. The whole time, as I asked questions from my outline and let the tape recorder roll, I was thinking, Well, wheres this great Satan of the agent world I was conditioned to expect?
Truth is, that devil didnt exist. McCormack, who turned his back on his first profession when he wrote the book, The Terrible Truth About Lawyers, was actually a most effective advocate. With McCormack, loyalty and the client came first, last and always. To those on the receiving end of his tactics, that might have seemed hard. But that was their problem, not McCormacks. He had his clients missions in the forefront.
From the beginning, McCormacks chief strength was the willingness to try another way. After a traditional start to his legal career at Clevelands Arter & Hadden, McCormack said, why not start a little company, as he called it, to set up exhibitions for golfers? High entertainment value, extra income for all ' a win-win deal.
He did it for Palmer, for Player, for Nicklaus, and the rest came trooping in, year after year. Now IMG represents thousands of performers, politicians, even governments, with 80 offices in 32 countries. On any given day, there are nine IMG-related events going on around the world. Over the handshake with Palmer rose a sun that has never set, and never does, around the world.
Along the way, like the good lawyer and good golfer he was, McCormack pressed every advantage and taught his people to do the same. IMG agent Mark Steinbergs default No whenever he is asked to ask Tiger is simply a loyalty response, a recognition that there is only one Woods and only so many hours and so many days.
Sometimes McCormack pressed these advantages in a way that galled competitors. So be it, was his attitude. Play hard, by the rules. If that means owning the tournament, inviting IMG players, and airing it on TWI, IMGs television arm, well, thats all legal. Feels like a monopoly to some, usually those looking in from the outside of the deal.
Some former IMG clients have squawked that if you werent instant big money, you became a second-rung client, or lower. Others said IMG pushed its champions too hard and burned them out too fast after a big win.
In each case, its hard to separate the speaker from his or her proximity to sour grapes. But the record stands: McCormack made a lot of money for a lot of people ' including, by the way, himself. And its not an exaggeration to say that every athlete who ever cashed an endorsement check owes more than he can repay to McCormack. Before he invented the endorsement deal, there was no such thing, at least not of the scope he envisioned and made happen.
Strip away the criticisms and praise, though, and what you had was a pleasant man with a well-used smile, a hint of upper-crust accent and an obviously razor-sharp mind. McCormack was that rare blend of immense smarts and high-gear work ethic. Up long before dawn to answer European e-mails and phone calls, working long into the night, never believing in a problem that cant be solved. The man represented the Vatican, after all; there was no cant or give-up in him.
In all our meetings ' which can be accurately characterized, at any stage of my career, as king-to-peon ' he offered a firm handshake, that smile, and a courteous hello. I would not want to have been across a negotiating table from him.
But I think I would have liked being on the same tee with him.