Nearly every professional athlete has a manager. But Gary Player, the legendary South African golfer, has a somewhat unique situation: his longtime manager, and the executive in charge of his business ventures, is his son, Marc.
Certainly there are other athletes with family members involved in their management. It’s standard among international soccer stars, for example, but in those cases it is more often a father managing the career of his son (Neymar Jr., Lionel Messi), rather than vice-versa. LeBron James’s management team is comprised of his childhood friends: Rich Paul is his agent, Randy Mims is his day-to-day manager, and Maverick Carter handles all of his business partnerships. Together, they formed the marketing company LRMR (the acronym is their four first initials).
After getting into sports marketing when he was young, Marc Player didn’t expect to eventually end up with a single client—his dad—but it has worked swimmingly: Black Knight International, the umbrella company housing Player’s businesses, includes a golf course design firm, a real estate development business, merchandise and apparel, an invitational tournament series, and a charitable foundation. Marc runs the company and serves his dad in a role that melds manager, agent, and promoter.
Fortune traveled to Augusta, Ga. for The Masters in April to write a piece on Gary Player and his businesses (See: Cowboy on the green), as part of our Pro-Files joint series with Sports Illustrated. During that trip, Marc chatted about how he manages a world-famous golfer.
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Fortune: When did you become your dad’s manager?
Marc Player: It was 30 years ago. I was 24, and my dad was 50.
How did it happen?
I had gone to university in South Africa, then I had to do two years of compulsory military service. After that I went to work for Mark McCormack [the founder of mega-agency IMG] in Cleveland. Then I worked in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and London… When I moved back to South Africa, I started my own sports marketing business. And my old man was a bigger name than ever, turning 50, and I went to Mark and said, “Listen why don’t we do a deal. I’ll represent him off the golf course, and you take care of him on the course.”
They were figuring, “Well, he’s 50, he’s kind of done.” But of course the Senior Tour took off. In fact the PGA Tour had to rein it back because so many people wanted to watch it. There was no Tiger Woods at that time, no Phil Mickelson. So there was a hiatus period where the PGA Tour didn’t have the stars, and the Senior Tour had Nicklaus, Palmer, Player. My dad won 30 different senior or champion events around the world. And that segued perfectly for us to build a big business off the golf course.
Was it hard to be taken seriously at times, because you’re Gary’s son?
I will tell you, in South Africa it was very difficult for me. They take the English view, which is that if you’re young, you have no experience, and you’re not qualified. I had major challenges getting people to take me seriously as a businessperson.
Not so in the U.S. The thing I love perhaps the most about the U.S. is people don’t give a single damn whether you’re the son of, the daughter of—it’s just, can you do it? And if you can, they embrace you. America really does have a culture of opportunity. I’ve never felt, in the U.S., that people would look at me and say, “that’s nepotism.”
What other challenges were there?
Oh, it was never easy. When I first sat down and told McCormack I wanted to do this deal with my dad, he said, “Well, if you think you’re a businessman, that’s fine, good luck. But you have to take all the risk. You build the business, you own it, you hire, you fire. And you pay your dad a fixed percentage off the top, and you pay me a quarter.” So McCormack forced me to own the business. Thirty years later, we still have each other. He’s made more money every year for 30 years in a row.
I took 100 percent of the risk. Now, you could say, “Big deal, how much of a risk was Gary Player?” But he was 50. He was done, right? And at that time, people weren’t getting $3 or $4 million to design a golf course. People were lucky if they got $200,000 or $300,000 to design a golf course.
If I had gone to Rolex and said, ‘Do you want to do a deal with Gary Player?’ they’d say, ‘Well, isn’t he done?'” The Senior Tour extended a lot of the players’ livelihoods. They made some money for the first time. My dad made more money winning the RJR Nabisco in North Carolina in 1989—$225,000—than he ever did before. It was the biggest check he ever made in his life. The first time he won The Masters, in 1961, he won around $14,000. And the last time, in 1978, he only made $40,000. The guy who wins today gets like $1.4 million.
Gary has six children. How did you end up the one to work with him?
Well, my brother Wayne wanted to be a professional golfer, so he was out there trying to play. My four sisters had no interest in golf; they all got married and had kids, did different things. So I suppose I just gravitated toward sports, the business side, and then I wanted to help my dad. Then, when my brother didn’t make it as a pro, he said, “Hey, maybe there’s a little piece there for me, too.” We said, “Come, come. But you gotta be the first in every morning, the last out, work extremely hard.” It’s a grind. After three or four months, he said, “This isn’t for me.” Playing golf is very different.
What was your strategy with Gary Player as a business?
At that point, he was already better known outside the U.S. And having Gary Player as an international brand has been huge for us. We capitalized on it. Because my dad always traveled, because he was always going to Japan and he won seven Australian Opens, those chickens are coming home to roost now. When I turn up in Mumbai, or Dubai, or Shanghai, they know who Gary Player is. He’s been there, he’s been coming there for years and working.
And we crafted a brand. I had an interesting chat recently with Rory McIlroy’s manager. I said, “Tell me. What is brand McIlroy? What does Rory stand for? We know who Gary Player is. And who Jack Nicklaus is. Who is Rory? You’d better figure that out.” Gary Player is the high-end, the more exclusive. That doesn’t make Player better than any others, who mass-market their name, license it out to anyone. That approach means big revenue. That’s not our approach.
It seems like where we are right now, The Masters, is an example of your high-end approach. The ultimate ‘hospitality package.’
Oh, we have a package here that is phenomenal. I don’t think there’s anything like it in sports. It’s our biggest opportunity each year. We invite a developer from China or from India. Last year we had the prince of Morocco here. They come in, play a bit of golf, have some breakfast, head out to the course. They buy their Masters merchandise. Late on Sunday afternoon, you really want to just chill and watch it all on TV. So you come here to the guest house, sit down on a comfortable couch, and we put my old man in the middle of it all, giving running commentary on the action. It’s a very personal experience, as you can imagine.
Then on Monday morning after The Masters we have our tournament at the Champions Retreat. Dinner and an auction on Monday night, and Tuesday everyone heads out. So it’s a long week here. We never get in bed before midnight because we’re entertaining, and we’re all up with Gary at six in the morning.
Can a company based around Gary Player outlast Gary Player’s life?
Good question. Look at where we are, The Masters, the home of Bobby Jones [founder of Augusta National]. He’s been dead 43 years. But he’s alive and well this week. People are buying his clothes, they’re buying the DVD, they’re buying the book on his career and life.
So how do you transcend a glorious playing career by Gary Player and turn it into a great business even after he’s alive? Because, even though I don’t like to tell him, because he thinks he’ll live forever, he will die. And I think about that every day.
So, who’s done it? You can argue Bobby Jones has done it. To a lesser degree Ben Hogan’s done it. But there aren’t a lot of people that are dead and gone whose brand, the essence of who they are, is alive and well. I think it is possible. I think if you put the brand building blocks in place, not unlike a Chanel or a Versace, you will be able to produce products and services that people will pay for even when he’s no longer alive. I think 20 years from now, 50 years from now, people will go into the Gary Player boutique and they will buy the apparel. They will buy the book on diet and health. They will buy the golf instruction video. If not, then it’s just, “Gary Player was a nice golfer, he built some nice golf courses, and he’s gone.”
How have you and your father navigated the troubling trends in golf, as an industry? Some reports say participation is down, golf courses are closing…
It’s true, golfers say they’ve given up their memberships, they just have one home membership now. The market changed. The impact across the board was devastating.
As far as golf is concerned, everybody overbuilt in the U.S. There are only 25 million golfers, there are only so many golf courses we needed. When the economy tanked, the developers couldn’t get money from the financial institutions, and people were saying, “Maybe I don’t need that second or third home in Palm Beach.” So even when the economy picked up, the golf developing continued to lag. If you can’t sell memberships, you can’t populate golf courses.
We addressed this by pushing our international business. We pushed the Middle East, we pushed Asia, India, China. As people there become more wealthy, they look to the West and say, “Hey, give us the big fancy resort hotels, the golf courses.” We just finished a deal in New Delhi. It has high-rise apartments selling for a million bucks, overlooking courses with 18 holes by Player, 18 holes by Palmer. 20-story buildings, all sold out.
I never thought there’d be a time when someone would say, “I’ll pay you a couple of million for a course,” and I’d turn it down. But we’re in a position where we can actually choose. It’s a privileged position.
The guys who never left the U.S., never traveled, never built much abroad, they’re in trouble and they have a lot of work to do. But us, on a given day my dad will say, “Where are we going today, what’s happening?” I might say, “Nothing today.” And he says, “Nothing? But what are we going to do?”