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The Village Nature of Pro Golf

Dermot Gilleece takes a look at the rise of Golf Management Companies

Posted Oct 24, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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Back in late July 2005, Stuart Cage took a break from work at Chubby Chandler’s International Sports Management (ISM) so as to compete in the inaugural Ireland Ryder Cup Challenge, on the Lackabane Course at Killarney.  Though Cage probably paid no heed to him at the time, Conor Ridge was also present at this European Challenge Tour event, having mortgaged his house earlier that year so as to establish Horizon Sports Management.

Graeme McDowell, a valued ISM client, was already an established European Tour player at that stage, of course, having captured the Scandinavian Masters in 2002 and the Italian Open in 2004.  Though the Scandinavian event was on that particular weekend, however, the Portrush native felt obliged to absent himself from it so as to attend a stag party for his younger brother, Gary.

Rory McIlroy, meanwhile, was strutting his stuff as a hugely promising amateur.  Indeed only two weeks earlier, he stunned the golfing world by scoring a breathtaking 61 off the back tees at Royal Portrush in strokeplay qualifying for the North of Ireland amateur Championship.

With clients in action at both venues, Ridge was keeping tabs on scoring in Ireland and in Sweden.  Stephen Browne was competing in the Scandinavian while Michael Hoey and Noel Fox were among those in action in Killarney. After observing that, without employing a caddie, it was costing players as much as €1,000 to compete even on the modest Europro Tour, he added: "We try to ensure that the only thing a player has to worry about is hitting golf balls.  We can help them by arranging corporate sponsors.”  It was all pretty low-key stuff.  

On a Monday morning in June 2010, there seemed to be evidence of considerably more wear-and-tear around Ridge’s eyes as he talked in the Monterey Plaza Hotel about the close friendship he had formed with McDowell, winner of the US Open the previous afternoon at nearby Pebble Beach.  A year later at Congressional, Cage was positively beaming as the manager with individual responsibility for McIlroy within Chandler’s ISM.  Just turned 22, McIlroy produced a record-breaking performance to succeed his friend, McDowell, as US Open champion.

Last weekend, McIlroy bade farewell to Cage, Chandler and ISM in a surprise decision to join forces with McDowell at Horizon.  Given the manner in which his fledgling company blossomed after Killarney, one imagines that Ridge no longer has any problem in handling the mortgage he took out six years ago, if in fact it still exists.    

The development of Horizon Sports have been as spectacular as it has been unexpected, not least for the fact that there is no history of golf management in Ireland.  Even at the peak of his formidable powers, Christy O’Connor’s various endorsement deals were handled largely by his wife, Mary.  And when O’Connor did eventually become attached to a top rank manager, it was with England’s Derrick Pillage, who also handled O’Connor’s nephew, Christy Jnr.

By the time Ronan Rafferty turned professional in the autumn of 1981, his decision to join Mark McCormack’s International Management Group was entirely predictable.  Meanwhile, more modest practitioners tended to go the early O’Connor route by taking care of their own affairs, though I once remember Eamonn Darcy remarking:  “If I happened to have the good fortune to win an Open Championship, the first phone call I’d made would be to IMG.”

By the late 1980s, Chandler had entered the management scene with a modest group of clients from his former days as a European Tour journeyman.  But he struck gold in August 1990, when Darren Clarke made the decision to join paid ranks, rather than wait for a virtually certain Walker Cup place at Portmarnock GC the following year.  And the management group he chose was Chandler’s.  Then, by acting as a mentor for McIlroy, he ensured that his fellow Ulsterman would also become an ISM player when he, too, turned professional in the autumn of 2007.   

The remarkable nature of these happenings, lends rich emphasis to the village nature of international golf.  And the way paths can cross in the most unexpected manner, tends to remind us of just how important it can be for people to take great care about how they treat each other.  Because as McIlroy has proved, today’s prized client can tomorrow become a rival’s unimagined boon.

- Dermot Gilleece

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