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Delicate Balance

What makes a 'good' agent in golf?

The best protect players from outsiders—and occasionally themselvesMay 1, 2019

*“Our players are family. If you don’t want to answer the phone for them on Saturday night when you're at dinner with your wife, with a nice meal and a glass of wine, or it’s 3 a.m. and they’re stuck in an airport because of the weather, then you shouldn’t represent them.” *—Matt Judy, Executive VP, Blue Giraffe

This past weekend, Eamon Lynch wrote a piece at Golfweek arguing that most of the blame in the Carly Booth scandal—Booth released a statement praising Saudi Arabia for integrating women into sport, which was received poorly in some corners—lay with Booth's agent. Lynch's convincing case rested on the idea that Booth's public messaging is mostly a function of those who represent her, and that they should have flagged anything that would have exposed their client to controversy long before it was released. Their failure hurt Booth, who quite possibly knew very little about the words attached to her name, or their import, until the blowback hit.

The episode got me thinking about the role of agents in general, and the qualities that make a "good" agent. Very early in my time covering the PGA Tour, I began to shed my naïveté and understand the stark divide between my job as a journalist and the work of the agents who represented the players I covered. Writers belong to the world of information, while agents belong to the world of money. An agent must sell his player, which is a multifaceted mandate, but ultimately easy to define. Just as important, however, an agent must protect his player.

But what does "protect" mean?

In fact, that word encompasses a wide range of action, but a basic rule—so basic that it practically goes without saying—is that an agent can't commit an unforced error. It can be difficult enough steering a client away from the various pitfalls that emerge when an athlete gains fame, money and a huge platform, but to bring negative press onto your player through no (or little) fault of their own is a cardinal sin. That's what made the Booth case so interesting—without knowing the exact process that went into her controversial social-media post, I would guess that the words were written by someone else, edited by someone else, and that if she vetted the statement at all, that vetting was perfunctory. At the very least, the geopolitical subject matter fell outside the wheelhouse of what a professional golfer can reasonably be expected to know. It is an agent's job to anticipate criticism from events and messages that might seem innocuous, and when the agent is the one creating that negative fallout, it's a problem.

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So, there's that: An agent or manager should be the person putting out the fire, not lighting it.

But "protection" goes farther than simply avoiding mistakes—most of the job is far more proactive, as I learned when I started showing up regularly on tour. At first, I disliked what I saw as the superficial style of golf agents, and it didn’t help that they frequently rejected my appeals to interview a player. In rare cases, it got personal—I remember one who, when I forgot his name after meeting him a day before, was so annoyed that he refused to speak with me for the rest of the season.

David Cannon

Booth's social-media post about Saudi Arabia set off a firestorm of criticism.

Most of them, though, weren’t nearly as thin-skinned. Their rejections weren’t personal, and even if they couldn’t hide the fact that they considered me a pest, it never felt like I was a special pest—just one of a thousand mosquitoes flying around, in danger of drawing a little blood, maybe, but easily swatted in a pinch. And the more I hung around them, and the more I learned about the world and the job, the more I began to understand this concept of protection.

My attitude softened, and almost against my will, I started to like some of them—even now, I have a cautious and almost certainly unrequited affection for Sam MacNaughton, Rickie Fowler’s rep, who seemed then like the Genghis Khan of agents and filled me with fear every time I steeled myself to approach him.

• • •

“We tell players, there are two performances. You have one on the golf course, and you have one in the media center. And you’ll never be a true superstar until you master both.”
—David Winkle, President, Hambric Sports

My evolution in thinking made me want to know more about what the job entailed, so one week at the PGA Championship, I sat down with David Winkle, Dustin Johnson’s agent. At that point, Winkle’s summer had been interesting, to say the least, and when news came out a week before our scheduled dinner that Johnson would be taking a leave of absence—which was soon revealed as a likely suspension—I thought for sure he would cancel. He didn’t, and we met in a downtown restaurant, where he told me the story of how he became president of Hambric Sports, the company that represented Johnson, Justin Leonard, Brooks Koepka, and many others in the U.S. and Europe, including the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

We spent a pleasant night talking about his long and fascinating career—a very good story for another time—but the greatest revelation centered around the idea of protection. A major aspect, as you'd guess, revolves around player interaction with the media, and I was surprised to learn from him that most agents outsource this training to special consultants. Often, corporate sponsors will pay for these sessions. The player is their representative, after all, and has the potential to embarrass them if he can’t handle himself around a microphone.

As we saw with Carly Booth, social media is another powder keg for agents, and another category that falls under the "protection" umbrella. In most cases, though, the real worry comes when a player runs a personal account herself. That gives her the chance, with just a few keystrokes, to do something embarrassing or offensive. A boring player is no good, but there’s such a thing as being too entertaining, and managing the way a player uses an outlet like Twitter can be a nightmare. The wrong tweet can have serious image consequences, which can affect sponsorships and future earning potential, as well as bringing stress on the player himself.

Social media can hurt the player in reverse, too—wild nights at the bar represent a clearer danger than ever before, because every civilian now has an iPhone with a camera and the means to post on Twitter or Facebook. It can be a hard lesson to take for a player, who wasn't expecting to lose his public anonymity forever. This, too, is part of what it means to protect.

Andrew Redington

David Winkle's effectiveness as Dustin Johnson's agent lies in his ability to accommodate the media while also protecting his player.

Finally, there's the small issue of the actual golf itself. The professional world comes with a thousand distractions, some inevitable, some self-inflicted. As Winkle and Judy were both quick to point out, a trademark of a "bad" agent is one who puts short-term gain above the player's performance. Some chase big equipment deals, which might force a player to change clubs and become uncomfortable on the course. Others pursue endless corporate engagements to pile up small paydays, or spread a player too thin with media in order to build publicity and profile. All of these are necessary in small doses, but when overdone they can be hazards. A good agent understands that a career can only be made—truly made—on the course, and will have a better understanding than the player ever could, from experience, of the point at which the distractions harm the game on which it all depends. The ones who lose sight of this, and stop being able to see the forest for the trees, can literally destroy a player's career.

When I spoke with Winkle, he was in the midst of the Johnson saga, and though there was an unspoken agreement that we wouldn’t touch very heavily on that subject, he did tell me he was irked at having to field calls from outlets like TMZ, Good Morning America, and even Dr. Phil about his client. Winkle has seen a bit of everything—he even had an Arab sheikh call him when he represented Butch Harmon, hoping to get lessons from the best teacher in the world—but it’s the sheer volume that was frustrating him when we spoke. Even under normal circumstances, though, he can’t answer every request. Sports radio is a prime example—if he responded to every radio request for Johnson, he’d do nothing else.

As a whole, agents quite simply want to keep everything straightforward and profitable. If there's an image to be put forth, they want to present it themselves, on their terms. This can, of course, cause conflict with writers—I like David Winkle, and I think he liked me, but there are certain things I wrote about Dustin Johnson in my 2015 book that he inevitably did not like, though as far as I can tell he didn't stop liking me as a consequence. Still, what I think of as honesty may look unnecessary to him, and it’s all because at the core, we are sometimes at cross purposes.

There are varying levels of integrity in each agent—as in every job—but the truth is that at the bottom of every justification, the best of the bunch are focused on making money for their players while protecting them from negative publicity. At times, those goals can be at odds, which Carly Booth discovered to her detriment. That's when the job gets really hard, and that's when mistakes are made.