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An Incomplete Biography

Alastair Johnston has amassed the world’s largest private golf library. And he’s not done collecting books or memories
3/21/18 2:36:57 PM -- Cleveland, OH Photography for the Golf Journal Alistair Johnson and his private golf library. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

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The Goff: An Heroi-Comical Poem, in Three Cantos
By Thomas Mathison
1793 
Third edition, expanding on the original from 1743

Alastair Johnston hasn’t read all 27,000-plus golf books in his personal library. Not even close. But that’s not the point. He remembers, often in exquisite detail, how he attained nearly every one of them.

That’s quickly become apparent to the wide-eyed group of young IMG employees trailing their mentor through the custom-made wooden shelves. It’s a special occasion: their first invite to this golf Shangri-la in suburban Cleveland. Johnston, who rose from unknown intern to IMG founder Mark McCormack’s right-hand man to his current roles as vice chairman of IMG Worldwide and the trusted executor of Arnold Palmer’s estate, is all smiles; he’s with his people.

By any measure, Johnston has built the largest private golf library in the world, which winds through four rooms of his home. Historians at the USGA and R&A stay in regular contact with him, monitoring annual additions, which number in the hundreds; fellow collectors watch his every move. In any other museum, a collection of this size and depth would be treated with white gloves and hushed tones. In Johnston’s library, about 35 minutes from IMG’s headquarters downtown, no tome is off-limits. Many of his prizes would fetch jaw-dropping prices on the collector market, but it’s more valuable to Johnston for people to flip through the pages, to fully grasp what these books mean to the game and, most importantly, to get the story behind the story. 

The Goff is no different. It’s under a museum-style glass case, but that’s mostly for show. The guests inhale in shock as Johnston announces the book’s significance—the first ever printed solely about the sport, one of only six or seven in the world—but he brushes that off and quickly offers to remove the glass. It’s a relic that collectors would kill for, but that’s not what gets Johnston’s Glasgow brogue flowing. It’s the story of how it came to the collection.

“I sent my father to buy it at auction,” he chuckles. “Here’s the man who made me come home to be an accountant because he thought there was no money in sports management. Now he’s buying a book for more than he made in his life.”

Alistair Johnson and his private golf library.  Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Gary Player Staff Bag
1978

“Gary could play anything,” Johnston says, still in awe. “Look at these damn shafts.”

An old red-and-white Gary Player staff bag with the classic Ram logo is cozied up next to the case holding The Goff. In it sits a menagerie of old clubs, all used at some point by Player. It includes several irons made by Shakespeare, rare fiberglass-shafted oddities built by a manufacturer known more for its fishing-rod equipment. One swing and it’s clear why the company didn’t last long in golf.

“When I first joined IMG, Gary had eight golf-equipment deals, all going on at the same time, in different countries,” Johnston says. “It was one of the things Mark did then to maximize income.…Arnold and Jack only had about four between them”

Then, as he is wont to do, Johnston hit everyone with the kicker.

“Those clubs are interesting but they aren’t really that big a deal,” he says casually. “This is the bag Gary used to win the Masters in 1978.”

When Johnston began his career at IMG in 1972, Player became his first client. It was still early days for these relationships; McCormack and Palmer had essentially invented agents and sports marketing only a few years earlier. Up until the now-historic handshake partnership between McCormack and Palmer in 1960, golfers were on their own to negotiate their fates off the course. McCormack’s success with Palmer was immediate and shattered the boundaries of what previously was thought financially possible. Player, who was on the cusp of international stardom, wanted in. He signed with IMG later in 1960.

In 1961, a promising amateur named Jack Nicklaus turned pro and joined the fold. McCormack and IMG were off to the races, breaking ground—and raking in cash—with every new deal. Johnston recognized IMG’s potential and jumped on board as fast as McCormack would let him.

While Nicklaus and Player went on to become enterprises unto themselves and move on from IMG, they’re still active members of the Johnston library. A full wall is devoted to the trio McCormack and Johnston marketed as the Big Three, complete with Arnie’s Army pins, Nicklaus’ golf balls, books by Player in myriad languages, and candid photos of the three of them that would incite bidding wars if ever they made it to auction.

Open Championship Pin Flags
1961–2017

The first thing Johnston shows his acolytes isn’t a book. A brick wall covered in signed pin flags from winners of the Open Championship welcomes them into the library, and Johnston makes his favorite the opening stop on the tour.

“This flag isn’t from when Arnold won the 1961 Open Championship,” he confesses as he points to the one hanging on the top right. “But I had three replicas made and asked Arnold to sign them.”

The library is awash in the light of the King. Johnston’s affection for Palmer goes well beyond a business relationship. There is a series of photos of Palmer with Johnston’s son as an infant, a teenager and a young man. There are books, illustrations, trophies, trinkets and signatures from Palmer throughout all three main rooms, from well-known events like the ’61 Open at Royal Birkdale to wilder, lesser-known adventures. Johnston points to a stained wicker hat he made Palmer sign after a sweaty 1981 visit to China to plot one of the country’s first golf courses.

“I like having that up there, but it’s probably only meaningful to me,” he says.

Open Championship Pin Flags. 1961–2017 Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The World Of Professional Golf: Mark H. Mccormack’s Golf Annual
1969

“I have all of these too!” One of the IMGers wants to impress the big man. Johnston has been flipping through the IMG-produced Golf Annual series of books, and after an interlude detailing how some of the sponsorship deals got done, he’s trying to let the kid off the hook.

“No, you don’t. Trust me.”

The young man presses. 

“I definitely do! I’ve got every year of the Annual.”

Johnston, politely but with the authority of a man who’s been doing this for nearly five decades, asks, “Do you have the American and the British prints?”

“Oh. No.”

Johnston tries to soften the blow of a defeat the young man’s co-workers will likely never let him forget. “It’s OK. Not many do.”

One of the books that launched this collection sits on the same shelf. In 1968, Johnston accosted McCormack after Player’s Open Championship win at Carnoustie. It was part one of a ridiculous plan that somehow worked: He was an IMG-obsessed student and became a tournament marshal. Johnston then used his access to track down McCormack, introduce himself and ask about joining the company. The brash young Scot landed an internship. (Johnston, of course, kept the program from that day and years later had Player and runners-up Nicklaus and Bob Charles each sign it.)

With the internship coming to a close, Johnston’s father demanded he come home to Scotland. James Johnston wanted his gifted son to earn a real trade, and made him return to Glasgow for a job at the Arthur Anderson accounting firm. The blond young man came home, but brought a few trappings of the life he wanted.

During his internship, Johnston began reading a few IMG-produced books on Palmer and Player at the office. McCormack let him keep them and sent him home with a parting gift: a signed copy of The World of Professional Golf: Mark H. McCormack’s Golf Annual 1969.

“I don’t think he ever thought he’d see me again,” Johnston says.

Three years later, Johnston returned to Cleveland with a job at IMG and a couple hundred golf books in tow, this time for good.

THE WORLD OF PROFESSIONAL GOLF: MARK H. MCCORMACK’S GOLF ANNUAL 1969. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The Volumes
Golf Digest, Golf Illustrated, 
Golf Monthly, Golfweek, 
Golf World, R&A Game Diaries
1899–2018

There are no tchotchkes in the writing room. There are no trophies or pin flags. It’s downstairs, detached from the rest of the library. It’s a brief but exceptional part of the tour; instead of traditional books lining the shelves, Johnston has nearly every golf magazine ever printed, organized by year in leather-bound annuals.

In addition to his library and living an astonishing golf life shaping the careers of legends from Palmer to Tiger Woods, Johnston is also an accomplished author. Much of his research, forewords for other books and personal correspondence is done in this small, dimly lit enclave on an unassuming wooden desk.

Off in a corner, almost as an aside, sits another collection diehards would consider a life’s work: every Sports Illustrated cover featuring golf—from the magazine’s second edition, in 1954, through Brooks Koepka’s 2017 U.S. Open victory.

“It’s a good place to get work done,” Johnston says with a grin. 

The Lawes And Actes Of Parliament, Maid Be King James The First, And His Successours Kinges Of Scotland
Imprinted By Robert Waldegrave
1566

Johnston is fond of telling his stamp story. When he was a child, he went to a big dealer in town and realized that his passion for collecting stamps was destined for soul-crushing mediocrity. More than foreshadowing his compulsion for building the library, the anecdote shows Johnston’s preternatural drive to seek out better opportunities.

“I quickly understood that with so many people [collecting stamps], I’d never have that great a collection,” he tells his rapt audience. “So I had to find something else.”

With that, the man who helped negotiate Woods’ first deal with Nike and who continues to run Palmer’s still-booming retail business in Asia turned to the next stop on the tour: the Scottish Acts of Parliament from 1457. Or, as it’s better known by serious connoisseurs, the book containing the first printed reference to golf in history. Every significant collection needs its cornerstone pieces, and this is one the IMGers will brag about seeing when they get back to the office.

“Printing didn’t come to Scotland until the 1500s,” Johnston explains. “So this is an original from 1566. They were called the ‘Black Acts’ simply because the paper and print were so dark.”

With hundreds of pages and an ornate cover, it’s vaguely biblical. The book is opened to its one and only page containing golf. The Scottish king forbids playing the game, along with “futball,” and demands his subjects spend that time practicing archery in case of a British invasion. 

“The Scots, if you ever saw the movie Braveheart, tended to favor spears and running into people with spears,” Johnston deadpans. “The king didn’t think golf and football were a good use of their time.”

Prizes like this prove Johnston is a long way from the mediocrity he feared as a child. But before he moves into the next room, Johnston wryly notes that he now has several lovely golf stamps.

THE LAWES AND ACTES OF PARLIAMENT, MAID BE KING JAMES THE FIRST, AND HIS SUCCESSOURS KINGES OF SCOTLAND Imprinted by Robert Waldegrave 1566. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The Art Of Golf
By Sir Walter G. Simpson
1892 
American edition

The backstories behind some of Johnston’s best book discoveries could be mistaken for a terribly clichéd attempt at a golf novel. Many of his gems come from the simple act of popping into the local bookstores of whatever far-flung city his work landed him in.

“I used to check into the hotels and the first thing I did, I didn’t care if it was America or Hong Kong or Australia or Canada, I would check the Yellow Pages for bookstores,” he says. “I enjoyed running, and before it became cool, I had a backpack. I always tried to run with it in the cities. I’d run over Sydney’s Harbour Bridge on my way to a secondhand bookstore.…I wasn’t particularly welcome, since I was stinking and sweating, but it reduced the amount of haggling.”

More often than not, Johnston knew more about the value of the books than the store owners did. In St. Andrews, Scotland, he found a book signed by Bobby Jones just before Jones passed. He knew that toward the end of his life, he just signed “Bob.”

“It was only £1.75,” Johnston says. “And I knew the St. Andrews people knew their stuff, so I’m going, ‘Please don’t open this thing.’ They didn’t, and I got it.…Bobby Jones stuff is highly collectable these days.”

Even at home in Cleveland, Johnston was on the lookout. In the late 1980s, he was walking past the Old Erie Street Bookstore, not far from the IMG office, and saw The Art of Golf in the window. He already had the British print from 1889, and thought he might pick up a duplicate for the right price. But Johnston noticed it was an American edition printed in Boston in 1892. He knew the Spalding’s Official Golf Guide had been published in 1893, making this possibly the first golf book ever printed in the U.S.

“I brought it up to the counter,” Johnston starts, already getting laughs from his audience. “And the old guy that ran the place had obviously seen me before. I tell him I might like to buy this book. He stares at me for a few seconds and finally says, ‘$40.’”

More laughs.

“I say I’ll give him $30 and he says, ‘I’ll take it.’ I would have paid $3,000 for it.”

The Art Of Golf By Sir Walter G. Simpson. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Arnold Palmer Autographed Masters Scorecard And Photograph
2016

The tour is over; the group has scurried back to the buzzing digital world. Johnston remains in the halls of his library, with more stories to tell. At 70 years old, he is fit, sharp and still travels hundreds of days every year making deals and preaching the gospel of IMG, but times have changed.

Instead of sweating through a negotiation with an unwitting bookstore owner, all he needs now for his next conquest is the Wi-Fi password at his hotel. Player and Nicklaus are hitting ceremonial shots at the Masters instead of winning them. Johnston organized and stage-managed every word and flyover of Palmer’s funeral in 2016. Woods left IMG years ago.

Johnston played an instrumental role in carving their faces onto golf’s modern Mount Rushmore. So what’s left to accomplish for this lion staring into winter? Ever the shrewd, powerful businessman, Johnston is coy. He’s fascinated at how the Elvis Presley estate still prints money and is focused on setting up Palmer’s entities to last generations. He’s rejoined the board of his beloved Glasgow Rangers, bent on helping his boyhood soccer club rediscover past glories. He claims there are no major trophies left for his library—just a few golf-club histories here and there—but does admit to adding north of 500 new books every year.

Still, it’s telling when he’s asked about the most meaningful pieces in his collection. The memories and stories now take precedence over the dollar values. He wanders to a shelf with an autographed Augusta National scorecard and a photo of him with Palmer in a wheelchair.

“I’m going to have the scorecard and photo framed,” Johnston says, the tour-guide tone gone from his voice. “That was 2016, Arnold’s last time at Augusta. I took him out to his car after this picture and in my heart I knew that he wasn’t coming back. So I said, ‘Hey, sign this for me, would you?’ It’s the last scorecard he ever signed at Augusta.”

Arnold Palmer Autographed Masters Scorecard And Photograph 2016. Photography by Todd Rosenberg.

The Chronicles Of Golf: 1457–1857
By Alastair J. Johnston Jr. And James F. Johnston
1993

Many of Johnston’s best stories—the ones he tells over a second bottle of wine, not in front of a group of young-buck employees and some reporter—will likely remain unwritten. But when it comes to the facts of the game, Johnston feels compelled to go on the record. 

“I got fed up reading history books that essentially jumped from Mary Queen of Scots playing golf—which is all fictitious—to Bobby Jones,” he says. “There was this sense that because they were published in 1910 or something, they would be accurate. The reverse is true because what sources did they have? They had no internet, they couldn’t get to all the libraries…they were just looking on local newspapers. The perception was if it was written in 1910 it was more accurate because it’s closer to 1790. Can you imagine that?”

When his father retired in the 1980s, Johnston hatched a plan for them to write a book together. Despite forcing Johnston home after his IMG internship, the two remained close. Johnston says the first golf book he spent “real” money on—How to Keep Your Temper on the Golf Course, by the famously tempestuous Tommy Bolt—was a Christmas gift for his father.

“I took it back from him a year later,” Johnston laughs. “I said, ‘I’m collecting books now. Thank you for your donation.’”

With Alastair’s burgeoning library and James mining Scottish libraries and golf courses for further reference material, the Johnstons embarked on an ambitious plan to use all the sourcing at their disposal to create a factual record of golf’s earliest days. Eight years later, they introduced Chronicles, an essential book golf historians now consider one of the most comprehensive ever created. It’s classic Johnston: high-minded scholarly output grounded in Scottish pragmatism.

“It’s 800 or so pages,” Johnston says, “so it can keep a door open quite well.”

The Chronicles Of Golf: 1457–1857 By Alastair J. Johnston Jr. And James F. Johnston 1993. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Arnold Palmer Autographed Open Championship Photo
1995

Palmer used to unwind by going into his workshop in Latrobe to tinker with his clubs. Johnston relaxes with old friends still smiling on well-kept pages. 

“Up here, this is recreation,” he says. “In the evenings, I come in and pick around. Sometimes I just change them—move the shelves, add this or that, get on my iPad and look for new books.”

High above them sits a series of framed pictures, including the famous shot of Palmer waving from the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews in his final Open Championship appearance, in 1995. This one has a curious inscription.

“I had that sweater made for him by the R&A,” Johnston says, gazing up at his old friend.

In the wake of a 1996 school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, Palmer asked Johnston what they could do for his devastated countrymen. He suggested putting the sweater up for auction. It raised a hefty sum and landed back at IMG a few weeks later with a note from the buyer saying Palmer should have it.

“It was a touching thing,” Johnston says quietly. 

Shortly after, he received a gift from Palmer. 

Alastair
Thanks for a great sweater
Arnold

Arnold Palmer Autographed Open Championship Photo 1995. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.