Friday 23 August 2019

Putting business before leisure is G-Mac's plan B

Graeme McDowell: ‘I plan to continue playing until my early forties and at that point, I’d like to go spend some more time with my wife and children’
Graeme McDowell: ‘I plan to continue playing until my early forties and at that point, I’d like to go spend some more time with my wife and children’

Dermot Gilleece

Though tournament golfers are not generally noted for their entrepreneurial skills, Graeme McDowell is aiming to be sufficiently well established in business to quit the game within the next seven or eight years. And part of that plan will see him launch a second Florida restaurant next May.

This has been prompted by the success of the Nona Blue restaurant which he opened with American partners in Orlando a few years ago. He is also involved in "a few other business opportunities", including a clothing line and "Game Golf", a computer training aid invented by Galwayman John McGuire.

The significant boost to McDowell's earning power sparked by his US Open triumph at Pebble Beach in 2010 has been handled with care. And to his credit, he lends generous support to the Children's Medical Research Foundation at Our Lady's Hospital in Crumlin, in conjunction with Aer Lingus.

He would still have some way to go in business, however, before hoping to match the success of leading practitioners like Greg Norman, whose net worth is estimated at $300m. Days prior to his dramatic US Masters collapse of 1996, it emerged that Norman was worth $60m, having been near bankruptcy only 10 years previously.

This dramatic turnaround could be attributed to a timely investment of $1.9m in Cobra Golf, which delivered a $40m return when the company was sold to American Brands in 1995, prompting John Daly to chide: "Forty million! You got enough money yet, Greg?" More memorable, however, was the reaction of Jack Nicklaus, who appeared visibly shaken when publicly informed of the extent of The Shark's good fortune. This may have had something to do with the fact that the Bear's companies were experiencing difficulties around that time.

In fact The Wall Street Journal reported "notable disappointments" for brand Nicklaus in August 1998, at a time when Norman and the Bear's great rival, Arnold Palmer, had a policy of simply lending their names to businesses created by others. Nicklaus, on the other hand, is thought to have been the first golfer to actually go public with his name, with several of his core businesses in Golden Bear Golf Inc, whose stock proceeded to sink to less than one-third of its flotation price between 1996 and 1998.

He had earlier experienced quite a scare back in 1985 when informed by advisers that he and his businesses were "so deeply in debt and at risk in real estate and other non-golf-related projects as to face imminent financial disaster."

In the event, a memorable Masters triumph a year later helped him to ride out that storm. More recently, his wealth has been built on a very successful golf-course design business, culminating in a current, estimated fortune of $250m.

A marked change in his business strategy is probably best exemplified by The Bear's Club in West Palm Beach, where Rory McIlroy is among the members. Though conceived by Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, it became a joint venture with 34 other wealthy shareholders as a shrine to the most dominant player in the history of the game. Meanwhile, Palmer's low-risk policy of endorsing blue-chip companies as a much-loved icon, has delivered personal wealth of $675m. But McDowell is keenly aware of these as exceptional individuals.

"Out here on tour, any of the top players will tell you there's a tonne of opportunities thrown in your lap on a month-to-month basis," he said. "There's always some crazy new idea that people want you to endorse, but I think I'm smart enough to pick the good ones from the bad ones. That's the key."

Adopting the successful novelist's dictum of concentrating on the things he knows, McDowell fell in love with the restaurant business as a youngster in his native home town. "I'm talking about the Ramore Wine Bar down by the harbour in Portrush," he said. "It happens to be one of the most successful franchises in the UK and I've always been fascinated by it. When I got to know Orlando's Lake Nona area, I could see that the restaurant option was an easy call as something that it badly needed. And I set about surrounding myself with good people."

McDowell will be playing later this week in the $6.2m OHL Classic at Mayakob, while European colleagues are competing in Shanghai. Though this could be seen as a consequence of his sharp decline in form over the past 12 months, there is no question of outside interests distracting him from what remains his primary objective.

"In fact I'm actually planning to play more golf next year," he said. "But there will still be plenty of time to pursue long-term business interests, including a second restaurant up in Ponte Vedra. Being located in Sawgrass Village is very exciting and if all goes well, we hope to be open for the Players Championship. That's the goal."

By way of emphasising a continuing commitment to his tournament activities, he added: "I've got a couple of really great American business partners who know the restaurant business well, and they're doing a great job." Then, with a grin: "So I'm not in there flipping burgers, or checking the till late at night or looking after staff. I'm more of a PR guy. I do the marketing stuff, lending credibility to the whole operation while those who know the business are doing a first-class job cooking the burgers and steaks. We're finding that visitors to Orlando, especially those from Britain and Ireland, like the idea of coming to my restaurant. Which is exciting." And if those tourists happen to pick the right evening, McDowell will be there as an enthusiastic host, happy to make them welcome and pose for photographs. And to enhance the experience, G-Mac branded shirts are available, along with other souvenirs.

Was the idea, I wondered, to have this as a rewarding distraction down the road, while he waited to take his place on the Champions Tour? "There won't be any Champions Tour for me," the 36-year-old replied. "I plan to continue playing until my early forties and at that point, I'd like to go spend some time with my wife and children. That's my life goal - provided I don't lose all my money in the meantime." That last bit was added with a broad grin.

And how was business faring right now? "Don't know," he said. "We're talking very much long-term. I'll tell you in a few years' time."

On the other side of the fairway ropes, legendary scribe Leonard Crawley of the Daily Telegraph had a more direct way of enhancing his income. Like famously claiming £100 in entertainment expenses for covering the British Boys' Championship. "You'd be surprised how much lemonade those little sods drink," he protested to a disbelieving sports editor.

You could picture McDowell the businessman mischievously steering the bold Leonard towards a more reasonable purveyor of soft-drinks.

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