Golf's Super Agent
Chubby Chandler’s clients include four major tournament winners and a solid cast of golf’s biggest stars
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Not since Mark McCormack made a handshake deal with Arnold Palmer in 1960 and used that relationship to build the International Management Group, has an agent been so front and center in the sport.
Chubby Chandler has gathered a stable of proven veterans and blossoming superstars with handshakes and turned it into International Sports Management, a company of global reach that nonetheless remains very much a close-knit family. Within that family are major tournament winners Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Ernie Els. Major contender Lee Westwood is part of the flock. So, too, Simon Dyson, a two-time winner in 2011 on the European PGA Tour and LPGA player Christina Kim.
During the summer of 2011 there was even talk of the “Chubby Slam” going into the PGA Championship with Schwartzel winning the Masters, McIlroy the U.S. Open and the 42-year-old Clarke winning the British Open. Since when were “Slam” and “agent” ever linked?
In a sport conducted with hushed and guarded voices, Chandler is somewhat of a loudmouth, only by virtue of his candidness. While others—agents, players and officials—deal with the media as a necessary evil, Chandler embraces his role as spokesman for his players, addressing their virtues and their shortcomings with equal sincerity.
Clarke was Chandler’s first big handshake in 1990, having started his business in 1989 after abandoning his own 14-year pro career with one tournament victory.
Clarke speaks to the heart of Chandler’s appeal.
“Chubby, he’s been my manager, he’s been like another father for me; he’s been a friend for a very long time. He’s looked after me through thick and thin and, as I’ve said, through the good times and the bad times, he’s always been there for me. I’ve annoyed him a few times and he’s annoyed me a few times, but not many. I think you could count it on one hand in 21 years. We have a special relationship with no contract, shake of a hand, and his word is good enough for me."
Chandler’s career as an agent began when he started selling himself as a golfer. The man from Bolton, England (near Manchester), was better at promoting himself than he was as a player. He was good, but just not good enough, and knew he would have to do something besides slash a ball around if he was to have anything like success. In his best Bolton accent, which turns major into “mayja,” Chandler, 59, says:
“I needed an alternative to selling tee pegs and giving lessons. I would have been a club pro. I suppose I would have wanted to be a director of golf. I knew I was good at PR, but I didn’t really know what PR was. I was good at talking with the media, with sponsors, that sort of thing. I got along well. I stopped playing and formed my company International Sports Management in 1989. I was making a living, barely a living.”
He started out with four lesser-known players—Carl Mason, Derek Cooper, Phil Harrison and Dennis Durnian—friends of his from the Tour.
“If I could get sponsorships for myself, I could do it for others,” says Chandler, sitting in the media center of the Irish Open in Killarney, doing his usual rounds. “I could do it because it was me, it was who I was. I could sell myself. I had been doing deals for myself since 1977. There was a kitchen company I did a deal with for 8,000 pounds for the logo and a few company outing days. That was 1981. 8,000 pounds doesn’t sound like much, but 30 years ago that was a pretty good deal.”
What Chandler was good at doing was camaraderie. He could connect his friends in the game with his friends in the executive offices. It was just what he was doing for himself and there really was no line for him between the locker room, the board room and the bar room. His gift for gab, even though he didn’t know he had it, and his desire to be part of the game and the lives of those that played it, drove him to do what came naturally.
He got a few contracts for his original cadre of players. Then he got a phone call that would change everything.
“In May of 1990 an Irish lawyer I knew called and said there was a really good young player in the Irish Amateur, that he was going to win the thing and he wanted someone to talk to about whether he should turn pro,” says Chandler. “That was Darren Clarke. So he won the Amateur and I went over to meet him. Because he was talented, and playing golf was what he wanted to do, turning pro was the logical thing.”
The 20-year-old Clarke and Chandler shared a gregarious quality that led to an instant connection. Clarke asked about a contract and Chandler responded with an explanation of the Palmer-McCormack handshake agreement.
“Then we’ll do that,” Clarke responded.
“He said, ‘I just want to play golf and you do everything else,’ ” says Chandler. “It meant doing absolutely everything else and it still means doing absolutely everything else. The chat with Darren became the template for the whole company. He was a gregarious, handsome, overspending young man. He is very straight and honest.”
Based on Clarke’s success as a pro (though he did not win a “mayja” until his stirring British Open triumph in July), Chandler was able to add talent, like Westwood, Graeme McDowell (who left him before his U.S. Open title), the superstar in the making Rory McIlroy, the brilliant young South African Charl Schwartzel and his countryman Louis Oosthuizen, and the veteran “mayja” winner Ernie Els.
For the record, Els announced in September that he was leaving Chandler, who he signed with in 2005, to consolidate all his business in Florida where he lives. Els hooked up with a new agency, Pros Inc, headed by Vinny Giles and Buddy Marucci.
Both Els and Chandler were publicly buddy-buddy about the split, Chandler saying he was sure he would still be having a few beers with Els. McDowell left Chandler in 2007, with Chandler blaming himself, saying that he did not pay enough attention to him.
Chandler’s business expanded into other sports: cricket, soccer, snooker (yes, snooker) and Paralympics swimmer Heather Frederiksen. In fact, it was the success of English cricketer Andrew Flintoff that gave Chandler the experience he needed to deal with all the demands on his major winners, starting with Oosthuizen at St Andrews in 2010.
“While I didn’t have a major winner until Louis [Els had won his majors before signing with Chandler], I had dealt with the situation like that before with Andrew Flintoff,” says Chandler. “He was the absolute hero of the Ashes [test match] between England and Australia in 2005. He certainly was as big as Rory was winning the Open.”
At this year’s Masters, Chandler was torn by emotions. His young superstar McIlroy was leading going into the final round but started letting things slip away. Then he pull hooked his drive on the 10th hole, ending up between member cabins for his second shot. He fell like a stone down the leaderboard and out of contention.
But Schwartzel caught fire, made birdie on the last four holes and donned the Green Jacket.
“At the Masters, you can imagine my emotions with Rory and Charl,” says Chandler. “Rory’s sort of dying in public and Charl is making birdie on the last four holes to win. I was having incredible highs and lows in the same breath.”
It was in that moment, of Schwartzel’s high and McIlroy’s low, that all of Chandler’s acumen was required. Perhaps more so than any other agent, Chandler is not just a deal maker, but a mentor, a shepherd. The congratulations for Schwartzel weren’t as important as the consolation of McIlroy, though he knew his young charge was tough at heart, that it was just a bad day, and that there were good ones to come.
“I’ve learned that when something happens like what happened to Rory, you want to buy some time,” says Chandler, who had publicly vowed that his goal for McIlroy was not to make him a basket case by age 25. “There are too many emotions when something like that happens. In Rory’s case, we didn’t talk about the Masters for probably 10 days. He went off to Malaysia straight away. I know he wasn’t as down as people think he might have been. Right after it, he said he had a bad day, it was just a golf tournament, that he was 21 and a lot of future in front of him.”
Chandler knew in his role as mentor and shepherd, that McIlroy was not prepared for that Masters moment, that despite his major talent, he did not look like a major winner. Among the cricketers he represents is Michael Vaughan, once the English captain and someone he calls upon for sage advice. Chandler likes to get his veteran athletes together, to discuss the experiences of his younger players and how they might handle the pressure better.
“I could tell when he went to the first tee at Augusta on Sunday that his body language wasn’t correct. He had his head down as he walked through the crowd and he looked straight down when he walked on the tee. It was like he didn’t want to engage them.
“I talked with Mike Vaughan and he said when players were under pressure they always looked straight down,” says Chandler. “He wanted them to look at the horizon, keep their eyes up, keep engaged.
“I said to Rory at Congressional, ‘keep your head up, engage the crowd, embrace it.’ And I think you could see the difference straight away as he walked to the first tee. It was head up all the way, looking at the crowd.”
And ultimately looking a long way back to the second place finisher.
“He told me to look back at that last day at the Masters,” says McIlroy. “He asked me to look at my body language and look at how much, even on the front nine when I was still in the lead, how much I was looking down at my feet and down on the ground instead of keeping my eyes up and maybe about level with the crowd. It just gives you a more confident body language and your chest is out, even if it’s a subconscious thing. But it did; it definitely helped. I needed to believe a bit more and believe that I could do it.”
While Clarke’s career had been successful, he always had issues with his confidence, and then he took a serious blow when his wife Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and died in 2006. Suddenly his focus couldn’t be squarely on golf anymore, and Chandler’s focus couldn’t be just on marshalling his career.
“Things come along that no one can prepare for,” says Chandler. “Darren lost a good six years of his career during her illness and the grieving period. All you can do is be there for him, when he wanted to talk, wanted to cry. There were still things that had to been done for his career, but they were very much on the back burner. I just had to be a friend. It was all I could be.”
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