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Agents and espionage: IMG defections and downsizing turn to cloak-and-dagger game?

By Steve Elling | Senior Golf Columnist

Is anybody left at IMG's capacious golf offices in Cleveland, which used to represent the most powerful structure in the sport -- and we're including the buildings that house the USGA, R&A and PGA Tour, too?

At this point, that's not a wise-guy question so much as it is a rhetorical one. The answer is becoming fairly obvious.

Another top agent left the fold of the world's biggest sports-management agency this week, amid more legal wrangling, innuendo, allegations and restraining orders. It's starting to get downright ugly -- possibly even to the casual fan who finds this to be inside baseball.

Sprinkle in espionage allegations and we start to understand that some of these parties are not exactly letting bygones be bygones.

The Cuyahoga County courthouse in Cleveland has been bustling as IMG has sought restraining orders against at least two agents who have left the fold, a legal move the company said it needs it order to keep former employees from poaching players still under the IMG representation umbrella.

It's gotten so contentious that Masters winner Trevor Immelman told Golfweek that somebody was taking pictures of him at a private outing with sponsors recently, an apparent attempt by IMG to connect him with Jon Wagner, a former top IMG player manager who left the company in the spring after a dispute over salary and job duties.

Wagner was under a court order to keep his distance from IMG clients.

“I was caught totally off guard when I heard about the pictures,” Immelman told the magazine. “I'm trying to do my best efforts for one of my long-standing partners, Old Mutual and its guests, and pictures were being taken. I understand there are legal issues outstanding, but I felt like it was crossing the line.”

In an attempt to prove that Wagner was in violation of his non-compete clause and restraining order, IMG used the photos in court to establish a link between Immelman and Wagner, his former agent. Immelman wants out of his deal with IMG.

Agents, secret agents and espionage? And we thought the management game was mostly boring numbers and hand-holding?

When it was at the top of the management game, IMG had a trove of agents handling virtually all the top golfers in the game. The downsizing began a couple of years ago with agents such as Peter Malik, Jay Danzi, Chris Armstrong, Kevin Lynch, Sherry Whay and several others leaving the fold.

Last week, Jon Heaton, who had effectively replaced Wagner and repped players such as world No. 1 Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Matteo Manassero and Annika Sorenstam, bailed as well, reportedly for Excel, the management stable now being manned by Mark Steinberg, who until mid-2011 ran the entire IMG golf division.

Steinberg, who has already added several top players to his Excel fold with Tiger Woods, Gary Woodland, Matt Kuchar and rookie Patrick Cantlay, declined to talk about Heaton in an email to CBSSports.com, but he didn't exactly shift into denial mode.

“Regarding this specific inquiry, I do not have any comment at this time,” he wrote.

Key phrase: “At this time.”

This is far from over. According to the magazine, a pre-trial conference is scheduled for July 10 in Cleveland regarding a contempt-of-court allegation by IMG against Wagner, presumably relating to alleged inappropriate contact between Wagner and Immelman at the corporate outing.

Apart from the legal maneuvering, here's the best way to frame the incredible turnover at the sports giant: Donald, the top player in the game, will now be assigned to a third U.S. agent in the past three months.



 
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