I was lucky to meet John Imlay. It was a special day two years ago in North Berwick just the two of us chatting. He sadly passed away last week and I thought it would be appropriate to post an excerpt from the article I wrote about him in Golf Illustrated. He said it sounded like his mother had written it. With the respect I held for him, I took this as a compliment. He will be missed.
John Imlay is on a mission. As well as championing the Bobby Jones name, he is also passionate about building bridges over some of Scotland’s great links courses.
Like all great men, Imlay has an eye on enjoying his retirement especially as he has recently recovered from two knee replacement operations and is looking forward to walking between shots towards the end of the year. His other focus is securing his legacy, and, perhaps as importantly, that of another legend.
During the 1970s, a former law partner of Bobby Jones FM ‘Buster’ Bird devised a plan to honour his business partner and asked Imlay to help develop the idea. “He said Bob would never want a statue or anything that would glorify him, so instead Buster wanted to create a scholarship between St Andrews Universityand Emory Universityin Atlantawhere Bob got his law degree. He wanted me to promote it but didn’t want all the usual clowns and balloons – he wanted dignity.”
That was the beginning of the Robert T Jones Memorial Trust Scholarship which was established five years after the great man’s death in 1971. It now supports four students from each university on an annual reciprocal placement in order to “perpetuate his memory in the hearts and minds of young people by creating a permanent memorial to his sense of values and character”. Golf skills, or knowledge, are not part of the criteria.
Before Buster died, he told his business partner Jean Branch and Imlay that the Jones flame would dim with his passing and he wanted Branch, and then Imlay, to keep the flame alive. That responsibility has now passed to Imlay who is stoking the fire through the scholarship and other initiatives including the non-profit-making organisation Friends of Bobby Jones. His latest endeavour is to create an annual celebratory dinner to commemorate Jones’ birthday on March 17 and launch the new golfing season.
Despite his custodial role, Imlay only met Jones once but it was a meeting that would have a profound affect on the young salesman. During a courtroom hearing involving a corporate dispute, Imlay reacted rashly to provocation from an opposing lawyer. “He ran in saying I was a no-good, lazy salesman slob so I took a swing at him – I was a bit of a hothead back then and this was Southern justice,” says Imlay.
The judge called a three-hour recess to calm things down and Imlay’s lawyer, a certain Jean Branch, took his client to see his senior partner – Bobby T Jones. “He was all knarled up and didn’t weigh any more than 110 pounds, but he still had his mind,” Imlay recalls. “He said until he was 19, his temper always won. Until he was able to control his temper he never had a victory in a major tournament, but once he controlled it, he started to win.”
The 30-minute conversation changed Imlay’s life. “’John, I want you to go in there and nice them to death’,” he says describing the advice he received from the Dixie Whizkid. “I always remembered that quote – it changed my life. I went into the courtroom and niced them to death and won the case. It worked, and I have used it ever since.”
It was a seminal moment and one that would define Imlay’s approach to life and business. It served him well. He amassed a considerable fortune built up on a reputation for astute marketing and his down-to-earth approach. More importantly, he has come out the other end with the distinction of being universally liked and respected. From former captains at Muirfield to the caddies of North Berwick, Imlay has the ability to put people at ease.
With guidance from some of golf’s great names, it seems Imlay was destined to build bridges wherever he went.