Online Extra: Arnold Palmer: With IMG from the Start

The golfing great reminisces about his long association with IMG founder Mark McCormack and sports marketing then and now

Arnold Palmer has amassed dozens of major wins in his golf career, becoming a legend in the sport and "Athlete of the Decade" for the 1960s, according to a national Associated Press poll. But off the course, Palmer attributes much of his financial success to his long relationship with IMG founder Mark McCormack, who launched the sports-management company to service the young golf star back in 1960. Although McCormack died a year ago, Palmer has continued to be a loyal IMG client. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Associate Editor Diane Brady about his experiences there. Following are edited excerpts:

Q: A lot has been made of this famous handshake between you and Mark. How did all that come about?

A:

Mark and I knew each other through college golf, really, and he approached me around that time to join him as he was putting together a company to represent golfers. I said, "You can do whatever you wish. If you have things that you want me to do, then you can bring them to me, and I will either approve them or disapprove them." And he responded that he wanted me on an exclusive basis. I said, "Well, I don't think we can do that."

He had another partner, and they represented about 10 or 12 golfers. I told him he could have an exclusive with me if he gave up everybody else and his partner. So, some time later, he agreed to do that and asked for a contract. I said, "We don't need a contract. We'll just shake hands, and you've got a client." That kind of shook him up a little, but he did it.

Q: What was he like as an agent?

A:

He was smart. That was number one. Number two: He never forgot anything, and he kept track of everything. I'll give you an example. He exercised a lot, and he knew exactly how many sit-ups and push-ups he did. He could give you the date when he did them. Every day! Everything he did, he kept track of -- and I mean everything. That was the way he lived.

Q: That sounds like an obsessive personality.

A:

Well, I don't know about that. You could say he was a person who had a lot of values. In the early days, he did have a little "commonsense" problem. That's where I complemented him. I wasn't too smart, but I had a lot of common sense -- certainly more than Mark had.

Q: How has the field of sports marketing changed since you started out?

A:

I was pretty conservative with endorsements. If I endorsed the product, I used the product. I insisted on it, and Mark went along with that. Let's put it that way.

But he also started marketing me in the beginning as an item to, say, places like Newsweek magazine. I would do outings with their advertisers or other executives, and he conjured up a long-term contract where I would do six outings a year. I would be the host and play three holes with each group.

It was grueling, but it was fun. The thing that was very significant about it was that those people ranged from junior executives up to chairmen of the board. A lot of those people through the years became chairmen of the board themselves, and Mark was right there with them when they did.

Q: Are the distractions for a young golfer different today than when you were starting out?

A:

I suppose that sports marketing was more generalized when I started out. You had a lot of different clients. Now, it's very specific, and the players know those people -- those clients -- extremely well. We knew them, but there were more of them. They still go out on the golf course, but they do it a little differently. Actually, when I think about it, it hasn't changed that much.

Q: What set IMG apart?

A:

Mark picked pretty good people along the line, and they set a standard that was pretty high. They are, without question, the best in the world. They have the right connections, and they produce results. That's what everybody is looking for, particularly in this day and age. Companies are becoming more aware of what the dollars are doing for them.

Q: What was the dumbest thing that Mark ever made you do? A: I had approval on all the stuff, so the dumb things didn't go far. There were things that I just didn't do. There was an offer to be on ocean cruises. I didn't care about going on board a superliner and giving golf lessons for a couple of weeks at a time. I did not do that, and have not.

Q: What are the challenges for IMG at this point, now that Mark is gone?

A:

The nucleus of the organization is still there, and the people are very good. As long as they stay as efficient and honest as they have been, they'll do very well. They have to produce and make it evident that they're producing. And I think they have the knowledge and the wares to do that.

Q: Should senior executives have equity in the business?

A:

I think it's appropriate.

Q: At this point in your career, what are you looking for from IMG?

A:

Of course, I'm cutting back quite a lot at my age. I'll tell you what I'm looking for. I remember an [IMG agent] named Jules Rosenthal back in the 1960s. I remember being in the midst of a very heavy commercial shoot, where we were doing stills and stuff. I said, "You know. This is all well and good, but what are you going to do when I get old?" This was a question to him and to IMG. And his answer was, "We will have established you as a business, and you personally will not be so important."

Q: Has that turned out to be true?

A:

To some degree. Yes, when I think about it, I would have to say that, to some degree, it has.

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