Book Review: “RAINMAKER” by Hughes Norton & George Peper

RAINMAKER: Superagent Hughes Norton and the Money-Grab Explosion of Golf, from Tiger Woods to LIV and Beyond is one of those books that had to be written. Libraries, stores, and stalls are full of volumes that entertain, inform, educate, cure, encourage, comfort, instruct, empower, and generally make the world a better place, but not all of them had to be written, necessarily.

Hughes Norton’s memoir of his highly successful but, occasionally, turbulent time at International Management Group (IMG), where he played a huge part in professional golf joining the big money sports leagues, probably isn’t essential to the world’s wellbeing, but for a certain generation of golfers the inside stories are essential reading.

Around 25–30 years ago, golf fans who watched Greg Norman spend 331 weeks as World No. 1, then, three years later, saw a 21-year-old named Tiger Woods decimate the field at the Masters with a red swooshed sweater, a swing, and a swagger not seen before, had their curiosity piqued when the agent who’d represented them both was unceremoniously fired. Inevitably, those fans had questions.

rainmaker hughes norton
RAINMAKER: Superagent Hughes Norton and the Money-Grab Explosion of Golf, from Tiger Woods to LIV and Beyond by Hughes Norton and George Peper

That so many that just hung around in people’s heads for nearly three decades are answered is why this book transitions from “great read” to “must read.” It joins dots and enables you to make some sense of a world about which you can only make educated guesses. One minute you’re thinking, “I knew it,” and the next it’s, “Huh, really?”

There’s the time Norman philandered with an Australian model in Hong Kong and Norton having to make the decision of whether to hide the evidence or say something to Norman’s then wife, Laura, with whom Norton got on well. There’s his eager pursuit of Woods which began when the promising youngster was just 13 and involved paying his father, Earl, $25,000 a year to act as a scout at American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) events—in an effort to become intimate with the family.

Plenty of authors have written worthy books about both Norman and Woods, but to get the real inside story from the man who spent countless hours with each player, and who had a huge impact on both their lives, is extremely satisfying.

The book isn’t just about Norton’s dealings with Norman and Woods, though. The Yale University and Harvard Business School grad represented many other medium/big-name players during his 27 years at IMG (1972–99) and there’s a lot of great insight about them and the professional game in general.

At some stage, possibly even before you start reading, you wonder why Norton left it so long before telling his story. His name still crops up occasionally, but you probably need to be a certain age to remember who he was exactly and seriously obsessed with the pro game to still care about what he did.

Timing was obviously a concern as Norton addresses the question on the very first page, saying the answer is easy—he’s 75 now; he began work on the book 50 years after joining IMG, and 25 years have passed since Woods let him go.

hughes norton
Hughes Norton

The real catalyst, however, might have been the 2022 podcast Norton did with No Laying Up which created a good deal of interest, prompting LINKS Magazine Editor George Peper to suggest now was the time for the book he’d been proposing for years.

One-time adversaries (when Peper, then editor of GOLF, had to negotiate Playing Editor contracts with Norton), the two are now good friends. And with Norman becoming the CEO at LIV Golf and Woods still very much in the news, the book seemed viable, if not necessary.

In it, Norton comes across as cerebral, measured, self-effacing, and honest. But there’s no doubt he was also the driven, aggressive agent with the take-no-prisoners attitude he was depicted as—and unashamedly so. “I aimed to be deliberate in managing my clients’ careers,” he says now. “And I took the occasional and inevitable accusations of being ruthless as confirmation that I was doing my job as expected. But, at the same time, did I scream, punch the air, and high-five my assistant Kathy and the IMG golf team when I got the call from Nike confirming the telephone numbers ($40 million over five years) negotiated for Tiger? YES! And after the Titleist ($20 million/five years,) American Express ($30 million/five years), and Rolex ($200k/year plus $6.45k in royalties) deals were signed, too (there were also significant agreements with Asahi, EA Sports, Golf Digest, and Wheaties). It was groundbreaking stuff.”

Norton makes it clear on page one, however, this is not a “vanity book” nor an “exercise in woe-is-me self-pity.” He certainly has an axe to grind in places and can be a little snippy—IMG head Mark McCormack would never be likened to TV executive Tom Murphy who was “unrivalled in the TV industry not just because of his business achievements but also his impeccable ethics, unwavering kindness, and boundless generosity;” Norman was “arrogantly self-confident” and a “swaggering, classic narcissist;” Alastair Johnson, whom McCormack put in charge of IMG’s golf division following Norton’s dismissal, was a “slacker” and “backstabber;” and there are negative comments about Mark O’Meara who, Norton is convinced, encouraged Woods to drop him.

But despite these comments, you certainly feel like giving Norton a pass because all of what he says is more than likely true. It’s no great secret Norman’s ego is larger than his ocean-going yacht. And those that knew him would probably agree McCormack was better-known for his business acumen than an extravagant largesse.

Whoever does or doesn’t deserve a pass though, and whoever’s side you ultimately take, there’s no doubting RAINMAKER is a page-turner. And the obsessive golfer still curious about the Greg Norman/Tiger Woods/Hughes Norton/IMG hurly-burly from the 1990s might very well devour it in one sitting.

You can order your copy of RAINMAKER here.

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