Characters: Alastair Johnston

While running Arnold Palmer, Inc., for more than four decades, Alastair Johnston amassed an incredible golf library that he is now giving back to the game he love

In his native city of Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland, Alastair J. Johnston is known, in the local vernacular, as a “bluenose.” In this city of two religious halves where football (soccer) is king, allegiance to either Rangers or Celtic determines on which side of the great divide you line up. Johnston is a lifelong and passionate supporter of the Rangers, whose royal blue shirts give a clue to the origins of the proboscidian sobriquet. Such is his lifelong allegiance to the men in blue that Johnston has risen in his time to be chairman of this historic football club.

Glasgow Rangers, however, is not his only passion. Golf has consumed most of the 72-year-old’s life since he joined Mark McCormack’s Cleveland-based IMG as an intern in 1969. And for the last half-century, he has been collecting golf books to the point that it has become more than a passion, bordering on obsession.

Alastair Johnston
(Photo by Darren Carroll)

It began when he returned to Scotland to complete his accountancy degree with 30 golf books that had been gathering dust in an IMG storage room. He came back to the States in 1972 to join IMG full-time, and six years later was given one of its top jobs, looking after McCormack’s first client, Arnold Palmer.

Johnston has been doing that ever since. It fell to him to announce the passing of the “The King” in 2016 and arrange his tribute service. And the work continues, not only for the Palmer Estate but the Palmer Group of companies, as well.

“It’s been a massive exercise and I am still very much involved in it. I am the legal representative of Arnold Palmer, which,” he says with a smile, “is a bit scary for me and him and probably God, too.”

Palmer business regularly takes Johnston around the world, yet he still finds time to add to what is arguably the largest collection of golf literature in the world. But the 30,000-volume library will not remain in suburban Cleveland for much longer.

Johnston, a vice-chairman of IMG and no stranger to the monetary value of things, has decided to part with his priceless book collection. For free.

In a hugely generous gesture that reflects his love and respect for the game, he has donated his entire collection to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, where it will be displayed in the “Home of Golf” and made accessible to the world audience.

The Alastair J. Johnston Library will be part of a planned redevelopment of the British Golf Museum, beside the R&A clubhouse, and managed by the R&A’s Museum and Heritage Department. And most important to Johnston, it will be going home, where he believes it truly belongs.

“I was taking great Scottish history—pamphlets from the 19th century and club histories that told us so much about the early history of the game—and stuffing it into my briefcase and boarding a plane back to the States. I felt like a thief,” he admits.

Among his most treasured pieces is a letter dated 1682 from the Duke of York to his niece mentioning his golf in Scotland. The Duke, after whom the city of New York was named, later became King James II of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Also in the collection is a copy of James IV’s infamous Act of 1457 banning golf. The copy is dated 1566, when printing became possible for the first time.

The collection has, by his own admission, cost more than seven figures to accumulate. In addition to books there is memorabilia, from dinner menus to paintings to flags signed by the winners of championships.

Does Johnston’s collection have every golf book ever written?

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he says. But he knows he intends to keep collecting.