LONG READS

Once upon a time, there was a man who collected golf books

Alastair Johnston

It’s unlikely a word exists for the type of collecting that Alastair Johnston is most passionate about.

He’s not a fan of vexillology (flags), nor deltiology (postcards), nor even plangonology (dolls). Teddy bears interest him in a footballing sense but the habit of collecting them, arctophily, does not. Instead, the Glasgow man’s biggest passion is golf books.

Over the last fifty years, the vice-chairman of management behemoth IMG and the former chairman of Rangers Football Club, Johnston has amassed a staggering personal haul of more than 30,000 books, which, for the time being, he keeps at his home in Cleveland.

From autobiographies, to instruction manuals, to club histories, to novels and more, his collection is both huge and diverse. He adds around 800 new titles per year and the current edition of the bibliography, which he publishes annually, consists of two volumes and fills more than 900 pages.

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At the start of this year, the 71-year-old announced that he would be gifting his extensive library to the R&A and shipping it to St Andrews in order to establish the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of golf books, to be named the Alastair J. Johnston Library.

He’s sitting in an office at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, just outside Orlando, where he explains to bunkered why he has decided that now’s the time to give his collection away. 

"This is something I’ve had in my mind for some time,” he admits. “Whenever anybody has seen it, they’ve been wowed by it and that’s something I’d like for people to enjoy on a bigger scale.

“As a Scot, it means a huge amount to me that so many unique publications will be returning to their rightful location. It was important to me that the collection should be kept together and that’s what the R&A has promised to do. It may well take a few years before it’s all up and running but I’m very excited about it.”

Johnston’s collection is jaw-dropping. He has between 3,000 and 4,000 individual club histories as well as an incredibly rare first edition of Thomas Mathison’s 1744 work ‘The Goff, An Heroi-Commical Poem in Three Cantos’ – the first book devoted purely to golf and for which he reportedly rejected a $100,000 bid from a fellow collector.

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His favourite individual work, however, is something that he has a far more personal stake in. 

“I wrote a book with my father called ‘The Chronicles of Golf: 1457 to 1857’,” he says. “It’s pretty much a complete history of the origins of the game in Scotland and spans between 700 and 800 pages. I guess you could call it my magnum opus. The fact I wrote it with my father makes it extra special.”

It was from his father, James, that Johnston inherited an unlikely love for golf. Born in Glasgow in 1948, Johnston grew up in Partick in the city’s west end where, as he rightly points out, there weren’t many courses. “As far as I know, Royal Partick still doesn’t exist,” he says with a laugh.

Alastair Johnston 2

It was in 1968, whilst studying accountancy at the University of Strathclyde, that Johnston got his big break. The Open Championship took place at Carnoustie that year, where he managed to get a job as a steward. Gary Player held off Bob Charles and Jack Nicklaus by two shots to win the Claret Jug for the second time, his fifth major. 

However, it wasn’t the South African that Johnston was interested in so much as his agent Mark McCormack. Eight years earlier, Chicago man McCormack had founded the International Management Group. Better known these days as IMG, it was intended to represent top sports figures and celebrities. The first man McCormack signed up was Arnold Palmer. Player soon followed, as did Jack Nicklaus and American football’s superstar quarterback Fran Tarkenton.

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Whilst most worshipped at the feet of the stars, Johnston was more impressed with McCormack and so, when he saw him behind the scenes at Carnoustie that year, he seized his opportunity.

“Being a ballsy young guy, I marched straight up to Mark and said, ‘I’ve read all about you and I know everything that you’ve done. I think it’s amazing and I just wanted you to know that if you ever open an office in the UK, I’d like to be a part of it’. He gave me his business card and told me to stay in touch.”

The following year, Johnston was preparing to graduate. His father knew of his ambition to work in sports marketing but, believing that to be an unsustainable career, urged him to go back to university to get his chartered accountant qualifications. Johnston had other ideas. He looked out McCormack’s business card and wrote to him asking if he could join him in the USA for a few months to undertake an internship.

Impressed by the brass neck of the ambitious young Scot, McCormack agreed to the request.

“It was too good an opportunity to turn down,” says Johnston. “So, I sold my car, packed my bags and flew to the States.”

It was there, in 1969, that Johnston’s book collection started. “I didn’t really plan it,” he says. “It just kind of happened. I enjoyed reading and there was no shortage of books around the office. Before I knew it, I had a dozen, then two-dozen, then fifty. It just took on a bit of a life of its own.”

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At that time, IMG had 24 employees. Today, it has 3,000 filling offices around the world. The clients it has represented reads like a “Who’s Who” of the rich and famous. Björn Borg, Chris Evert and Pete Sampras. Michael Schumacher, Derek Jeter and Charles Barkley. Liz Hurley, Kate Moss and Tiger Woods. Even Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II. IMG has worked on behalf of them all. However, a special place in Johnston’s affections is reserved for one man. IMG’s first man. The late, great Arnold Palmer.

“I was Arnold’s agent for almost forty years and he became one of my closest friends,” he says. “For a Scottish boy, just off the boat, the opportunity to work with such a huge superstar was just incredible. But what quickly became clear was that, with Arnold, what you saw was what you got. He was an amazing, genuine gentleman. We had some great times. I used to joke that it was Mark who took me to the parties and Arnold who made sure I got home.”

Mark Mc Cormack Arnold Palmer

Together with McCormack (pictured above with Palmer), Johnston helped make Palmer one of the most marketable athletes of the 20th century, laying foundations for the sports industry as we now know it.

“The thing with Arnold was that it was all so natural,” he explains. “College professors today just wouldn’t understand it. He was just as good a fit endorsing Rolex – for whom he was the first golf ambassador, incidentally, and spent a record 50 years in partnership with – or, say, Cadillac, as he was for motor oil or Latrobe tractors. If Arnold said you should use something, people used it. The public had complete trust in him because he was so charismatic and so real.

“That’s something we were committed to from the outset. We didn’t want to let anybody advertise him as a winner because winning is transitional. Instead, we positioned him as successful. Everybody can relate to being successful, no matter the line of work they’re in. It’s an enduring, appealing quality. And nobody embodied it better than Arnold.”

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Johnston stayed with IMG for over forty years, playing a key role in negotiating Tiger Woods’ $60m sponsorship deal with Nike in the process. When his mentor McCormack passed away in 2003, he briefly took the reins of the company. 

He subsequently served as chairman of his beloved Rangers FC for two years between 2009 and 2011. If golf has been his main lifelong passion, Rangers have always been a close second. The cars in the garage of his Florida holiday home have the number plates RFC1 and 1BROX. He once invested a million pounds of his own money into the club and successfully persuaded Caribbean-based venture capitalist Joe Lewis and South African businessman Dave King to give the club $40m and $20m of their own personal fortunes respectively.

He says he still comes home to watch Steven Gerrard’s men around once a month and, if he can fit in a round or two, so much the better. “My ability belies my Scottishness,” he laughs, with a nod to his 18 handicap. “But I love competition. I play in R&A events in the autumn and so on.”

He’s also working on adding to his incredible book collection by contributing another title of his own. “I’m working on a book about golf, golfers and advertising with my son, which has been a great deal of fun,” he says. “It’s a wonderful game.” 

• This article first appeared in issue 178 of bunkered. To subscribe and receive every edition of Scotland's only golf magazine delivered direct to your door, click here.

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