PEPPER PIKE, OHIO | Alastair Johnston was a 21-year-old intern at IMG in Cleveland when he started collecting books. And quite accidentally, too.
“The year before, during the 1968 Open Championship at Carnoustie, I had met IMG founder and chief executive Mark McCormack and suggested rather cheekily that if he ever wanted to open a European office, I was his man,” recalls Johnston, who hails from Glasgow. “Mark didn’t take me up on my offer but asked that I stay in touch, which I did. Then, the following year, he invited me to work for IMG in the States. I came over for three months and stayed during that time at the home of one of his assistants. I didn’t really know anybody, and didn’t have much to do at night. So, I gathered up some books I found at the office, by Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, as well as Jack Nicklaus, Bob Charles and Bruce Devlin. I read them at night, and when I tried to give them back to Mark, he told me to keep them. So, I brought them home when my internship ended.”
Fifty years later, Johnston is still acquiring golf books. The number of volumes in his library today tops 30,000. There are golf club histories and media guides from major championships, biographies of the very best players, dissertations on every possible aspect of golf instruction by top teachers, and tomes by award-winning writers reflecting on their experiences covering the game, from Bernard Darwin and Herbert Warren Wind to David Owen and James Dodson.
A trim, taciturn fellow with sandy blond hair, Johnston also has amassed stacks of yardage books from courses around the world and programs from PGA Tour events. Among the most impressive parts of his library is the bibliography he puts out each year. The latest one, published in 2018, comprises two volumes, takes up more than 900 pages and is further indication that Alastair Johnston has assembled the best private golf-book collection on earth.
The compendium is still growing, too. As the now 71-year-old Johnston keeps making additions, the man who is perhaps best known for serving as the longtime business manager for Arnold Palmer and the head for many years of IMG’s golf division is also preparing for what will happen to his books when he dies.
“All I can say is that the collection will go back to Scotland when I’m gone,” says Johnston, declining to get any more specific as to exactly where it will be housed. “Most of the early books I have come from Scotland, and I sometimes felt bad when I took volumes that were part of my home country’s heritage and brought them to the States. I’d like to see the whole collection back there one day. And I’d like to see it displayed in its entirety.”
Among the most impressive parts of his library is the bibliography he puts out each year. The latest one, published in 2018, comprises two volumes, takes up more than 900 pages and is further indication that Alastair Johnston has assembled the best private golf-book collection on earth.
Neither golf nor book collecting seemed to have much of a future for Johnston when he returned to Glasgow after his stint as an IMG intern. “My father did not think much of sports management as a living,” he says. “So, I became a chartered accountant and spent three years with Arthur Anderson. But then in 1972, Mark offered me a full-time job at IMG. I returned to Cleveland and have been here ever since.”
In the early ’70s, McCormack was keen on making IMG an international operation, and he sent Johnston all around the world. It was on those trips that the Scot began building his collection in earnest.
“The first thing I often did when I arrived in a new city was look in the Yellow Pages for secondhand book stores,” Johnston says. “I was a runner and used to plot my routes that took me by the best stores. If I found something I liked, I’d buy it and put it in the backpack I wore. I’d come into the stores all hot and sweaty, and I think that helped me get the lowest possible prices at times, because the store owners were anxious to get me out of their places of business as fast as possible.”
Johnston says he never focused on a particular area. “I was always a completist,” he says. “The easiest way for me to identify what books I wanted and those I did not was to collect everything I could related to golf. I drew a broad circle.”
Initially, Johnston operated very much on his own, and admittedly without a lot of knowledge. “But then I discovered the Golf Collectors Society,” he says of an organization that is now known as the Golf Heritage Society. “I met its co-founder, a Philadelphian named Joe Murdoch, and he became my guide. At that point, I became a serious collector.”
The seriousness of Johnston’s collection is quickly apparent during a tour of his home in this Cleveland suburb. There is the so-called Writing Room, which contains bound volumes and individual issues of Golf, Golf Digest, Golf World and Golfweek magazines. There are also numerous copies of Golf Monthly, several of which were purchased from heirs of the great English golfer and course architect Henry Cotton, and every issue from 1914 to 1933 of the elegant Golf Illustrated. Some of the Golf Illustrated issues feature Darwin writing specifically for an American audience (instead of the British crowd he normally targeted as the longtime golf correspondent for The Times) and occasionally were edited by A.W. Tillinghast, who made almost as good a name for himself as an author and journalist as he did as a golf course architect with a roster of works that include the East and West courses at Winged Foot and San Francisco Golf Club.
This space also features catalogs from golf auctions as well as guides to the sport in countries as far flung as Russia and Vietnam. Johnston has lined the walls with framed copies of print advertisements featuring tour professionals like Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Also, Palmer and Tiger Woods. It is a subject about which Johnston already has written one book, Vardon to Woods: A Pictorial History of Golfers in Advertising, and soon he will release a more comprehensive follow-up, Arnold Palmer, Look This Way Please: 120 Years of Golfers and Advertising. The copies of those ads on the wall mix nicely with many of the mementos of Johnston’s golf life and the people he represented through the years that he has hung alongside them and placed on the shelves.
On another floor of his home is where the lion’s share of Johnston’s collection is arrayed. Dubbed “The Library,” it includes a section of books by the Big Three, as Palmer, Nicklaus and Player were known when McCormack represented them, as well as one devoted to golf fiction. There are Masters Journals and spectator handbooks from that tournament, and programs from the Open Championship and the U.S. Open. This area, which also boasts a vast array of golf memorabilia, such as Open Championship flags signed by the likes of Nick Faldo and Tom Watson and photographs of Johnston with some of his former clients, Palmer and Woods among them, is also where Johnston keeps many of his gems. Like the programs from the first two Augusta National Invitationals, which is what the Masters was called initially, and the original printed copy of the 1457 Scottish Act of Parliament in which King James II officially banned the game of golf in his realm because he feared it kept his subjects from practicing their archery.
Johnston also possesses a copy of the first book devoted entirely to the sport, called The Goff, An Heroi-Comical Poem in Three Cantos. It was penned by Thomas Mathison and printed in Edinburgh in 1743, and is estimated by some appraisers to be worth north of $60,000.
Another key part of the collection is a book Johnston co-authored with his father, James F. Johnston. Titled Chronicles of Golf: 1457-1857, it is regarded as the best early history of the game.
Wearing a Bay Hill golf shirt that features the umbrella logo created long ago for Palmer, and accompanied for part of the tour by a young golden retriever named Arnie (because he, too, came from Western Pennsylvania), Johnston is clearly energized by his collection. He pulls a travel book off one of the shelves, where volumes in each section are organized alphabetically. He talks about the dust wrapper that protects it – and every other book in his collection. “I have spent thousands of dollars on these,” he says. “But I want to be sure everything remains in the best possible condition.”
He smiles when asked how many of his books he actually has read. “Very few of them in their entirety,” he says. “However, I do scan each one upon receipt to understand the theme of the content. I tend to read more closely those in which I have a personal interest, ones about Palmer, Player, Nicklaus and Woods for example, subjects that relate to my particular profession and business as well as genuinely accurate and reliable histories, which I find to be few and far between.”
Even better than reading his books has been building the collection, in part for the pleasure he finds in lingering in his library on the days he is home, and also for the legacy it represents.
And there has been nothing accidental about that.
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