Player, agent defections cause IMG upheaval

Sean O'Hair during the 2010 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

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When Mark McCormack founded International Management Group in 1960, the agency was small but packed with potential, having signed Arnold Palmer as its first client. In the ensuing years, many of golf’s greats – Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods among them – have been represented by the Cleveland-based firm.

Over time, it morphed into IMG Worldwide, a global enterprise involved in sports, entertainment and media, but its golf division remained the gold standard for player representation in the sport. Under billionaire Ted Forstmann, who acquired IMG Worldwide in 2004 and died last year, managing pros’ careers, however, became less of a priority.

That decline was more than evident two weeks ago when several defections among agents and touring pros rattled IMG. Employees Jon Wagner, Kevin Lynch and Jeff Stacy left, and PGA Tour veterans Trevor Immelman and Sean O’Hair followed. Now, a Cleveland court has been left to sort out the dispute.

Last week, IMG Worldwide was granted a temporary restraining order in Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Common Pleas Court against Wagner, which restricts him from soliciting IMG employees, clients and prospects.

A hearing scheduled to determine whether the injunction should become permanent has been set for June 4.

• • •

Following a meeting with management, Wagner, senior vice president and co-managing director of the Americas for IMG Golf, realized his 12-year tenure would end soon after his contract expired at the end of March. Sources familiar with the negotiations said Wagner received an offer that, in short, was for less money and more work.

Neither Wagner nor IMG spokesman Dave Haggith would comment.

“IMG’s been going downhill ever since Forstmann got sick, and it’s unfortunate,” said O’Hair, a four-time Tour winner and Wagner client.

According to sources, IMG Golf’s player-representation staff in the U.S. has shrunk in the past 12 years from 40 employees to 13. Nevertheless, IMG Golf still has a stake in many facets of the industry, including owning a portfolio of tour events, and involvement in media deals, course design projects and licensing ventures.

During the Forstmann era, player representation was trumped by the event business, which led to the defections of agents Peter Malik, Jay Danzi, Chris Armstrong, and most recently, Mark Steinberg, who took his prized client, Woods, with him.

Luke Donald, a Wagner client who has been with IMG since 2001, said the entire agency business, and not just IMG, is in a state of flux.

“Ten years ago, there were two or three options for me,” Donald said. “Now, there’s 40 guys out there probably managing different players.”

Donald met with Guy Kinnings, co-managing director of IMG Golf, in Chicago on April 30 and was reassured that his affairs would be managed by Jon Heaton, an IMG vice president.

Donald, whose contract expires in 2013, said he is treating the next 1 1/2 years as a trial period.

Kinnings, continuing to do damage control, met with Immelman at the Quail Hollow Championship.

Kinnings informed Immelman that Lynch would be his new agent, but the relationship was short-lived. Lynch left by the end of the week, and Immelman followed on May 7.

“He put a lot of hard work into my partnerships,” said Immelman, a Wagner client since 2005.

O’Hair also left the agency on May 7.

“It just was, he left, and I trust him wholeheartedly with my business,” said O’Hair, who hasn’t had a contract since 2008. A contract often contains a “rollover provision” that extends an expired deal as long as the player hasn’t opted out. The legal hearing in Cleveland could focus on such provisions in deciding whether to grant a permanent injunction against Wagner.

But the primary issue will be Wagner’s noncompete clause. Typically, such language would restrict Wagner or any other former IMG employee from recruiting any IMG employee for 12 months and any existing or prospective client for 24 months.

In IMG’s court filings, Lynch and Stacy were mentioned as employees whom Wagner might target.

Though Stacy was a lower-level member of IMG Golf, Lynch was a senior executive, representing Kevin Na and Jamie Lovemark. He also helped IMG recruit Ryo Ishikawa, Matteo Manassero and Matt Hill.

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