By a strange quirk of fate, a young Mark McCormack was struck by a car as he crossed the street in his home town of Chicago, thus setting into motion a series of events that created a major sea change in golf and sports.
While McCormack eventually recovered from his injuries, doctors advised against playing any contact sports. His father, Ned, channeled his disappointment by purchasing him a set of golf clubs, and a life-long love affair with the game began, setting in place a chain of events that would lead to the founding of IMG.
McCormack would learn to play alongside his father and his godfather, poet Carl Sandburg. McCormack played on the golf team at Virginia’s College of William & Mary. It was there that McCormack first met a young Wake Forest golfer named Arnold Palmer.
"Be the best, learn the business, and expand by applying what you already know."
During the 1959 Carling Open in Cleveland, Ohio, Mark McCormack and Arnold Palmer met again, this time with McCormack working at a local law firm and Palmer an established professional golfer.
McCormack informed Palmer that he was considering starting up a business wherein the company would serve as personal business managers (agents) to handle professional golfers’ personal affairs.
Palmer thought the idea was a valid one. He had heard that Clifford Roberts served as President Eisenhower’s “ultimate inner-circle man, adviser and protector, friend and counselor, through good times and bad, thick and thin, and President Eisenhower entrusted him implicitly.”
With that mutual understanding, McCormack and Palmer shook hands to consummate their relationship – no paperwork required.
“I’ll be your Clifford Roberts,” Palmer recalled McCormack saying.
The fact that no paperwork putting their “deal” in writing was ever required is testament to McCormack’s character. This handshake essentially formed IMG and the arena of sports marketing.
“There was no contract between us, because Mark knew my word was my bond and there would be no turning back on my part,” Palmer wrote in his book A Golfer’s Life. “The same was true of him, I knew, and those stories that you’ve heard about us never formalizing our business relationship in printed legalese are true.
“That handshake was the beginning of our relationship and pretty much all the contract either of us required to get down to business.”
Following the handshake “signing” of Arnold Palmer in 1960, McCormack signed South African Gary Player later that year, and then in 1961 inked a top amateur player, just turning professional, named Jack Nicklaus.
Mark McCormack is credited with being the catalyst behind what was to become the sports marketing industry.
Golf’s most talked about trio were brought together under the IMG umbrella and McCormack had effectively put the business in sports business.
Palmer, Player and Nicklaus rose to unprecedented heights, both on the golf course and in the public eye, opening up a world of opportunities and financial riches for all involved. From sponsorships, advertisements and endorsements, to special appearances and contracts, McCormack’s IMG was setting the table for decades of success to come.
One of McCormack’s strongest attributes was his ability to see long-range. His personal philosophy was: “Be the best, learn the business, and expand by applying what you already know.”
McCormack certainly expanded from his role as Palmer’s personal business agent. From the creation of numerous events, including the World Match Play Championship and The Skins Game, to innovations such as corporate tents, appearance money, licensing of merchandise and television rights and the creation of the Official World Golf Ranking, McCormack’s name is intertwined into the very fabric of golf.
“Without him the professional golfers would not enjoy the rewards they get today,” said World Golf Hall of Fame member Sir Michael Bonallack. “He helped grow the prize money, attracted sponsors to the game, and of course, he attracted television. He was quite a remarkable man.”