Simpson never let a polio diagnosis at age 2 alter his ascent to a successful business career. Today, through golf, his On Course Foundation is helping disabled veterans and military personnel
John Simpson was diagnosed with polio at the age of 2. And for the past 68 years, the lessons learned in humility, gratitude and perseverance have not only served him well, but a growing count of others. In 2010, Simpson, a former International Management Group (IMG) business manager for players such as Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer, founded On Course Foundation. The nonprofit organization supports the recovery of disabled veterans and military personnel in the United States and U.K. through the game of golf and golf industry careers.
In a wide-ranging interview with The First Call, Simpson, 70, talks about his early years with polio, what he’s learned about himself and others through the years, and the impact On Course Foundation is having as it continues to grow in scope.
The First Call: You were born on a military base?
John Simpson: I was born in the British military hospital in Hannover, Germany, where my father was stationed. My father was a Spitfire and Hurricane fighter pilot in the second World War and earned Distinguished Flying Cross honors. He stuck with and finished flying jets and was a fantastic pilot. My mother, amid the war, was a dental nurse. My uncle was shot down and killed at Arnhem like a mere mosquito.
TFC: You were diagnosed with polio at age 2, then underwent numerous surgeries at age 12 and spent about a year in the hospital as a result of complications. Talk about that, please.
JS: At that time, it was quite popular, orthopedically, to try a bunch of different surgical approaches and I was the guinea pig. I underwent several procedures and two big operations. The first didn’t go well, but the second was successful.
TFC: How did growing up with polio influence you?
JS: When I came out of the hospital, I had to learn how to walk again. It caused me to be humble. I realized early on that my infliction should be thought of positively and it could’ve been a lot worse.
TFC: Was there a tipping point when you realized polio was not going to define your future?
JS : Yes. I remember lying in the hospital after the second operation. I started thinking a lot about my life when my leg was above my head on a pulley contraction. I wanted to get a magazine that was next to me. I realized I couldn't get to it. This made me think that I was fed up with people feeling sorry for me. People often get bored feeling sorry for others and I got bored of them feeling sorry for me. I said to myself: “You know, I've got to do something and do the very best I can, so people won't feel that way toward me.”
TFC: What’s the abbreviated version of how you were introduced to golf. Who is responsible for that?
JS: At 14, my father introduced me to the game. He set me up with his friend who had an amputation below the knee. I found this out after we played golf together. He walked very well and, therefore, I didn't realize he was disabled. I was preoccupied with myself walking around and how painful it was. At the end of our round, he said “John, never complain about your leg to anybody because nobody wants to hear about it.” That was an a-ha moment and prompted me to focus on achieving remarkable things.
TFC: How did you get started in the golf industry?
JS: I figured out on my own that sports was going to be the business of the future because people haveconsiderable time on their hands and athletics were growing with immensely talented players who were entertaining.
I read about this chap, Mark McCormack, in America, who managed the big three in golf (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player). So, I wrote a letter to him. I jokingly said that I didn't think he could grow his business much more without me. It worked — he actually saw me. As a result, a guy named James Erskine, who worked for Mark McCormack back then in London, and Ian Todd, who was the boss in London, gave me a three-month trial that was quite interesting.
What was even more interesting was when I saw Mark. After the three months, I went into his office and he said, “You're probably wondering what the result is, what we think of the three-month trial?” I was extremely excited, but nervous. And in those days, to paint the picture, there was a company called ProServ [RK1] that was big in tennis and starting in golf. Mark looked at me with a straight face and said, “We think you have a great future in this business … but we think it's with ProServ.” He then burst out laughing, but he got me … he definitely got me.
TFC: And what were you doing before IMG? And when you moved to IMG, were you a player agent from the start?
John Simpson: Before IMG, I attended university and earned a qualification in business studies. Subsequently, I taught English to foreign students for a while and did a bit of marketing and sales simultaneously. Then I wrote to Mark and started at IMG in 1978. I was a manager because we weren't really agents and didn’t only do deals and walked away. We conducted everything for clients, including corporate and related business partnerships, and we handled day-to-day activities and financial management for professional golfers.
TFC: You were a longtime business manager for Nick Faldo. What was that experience like and what did you learn from him?
JS: I was the longtime manager for handfuls of tour stars, including Nick Faldo, as well as Bernard Langer from the very beginning. One learning from Nick was work ethic, given how much time and studying he put into his game. He was a perfectionist that propelled him to reach the very top. Nick was in the last group in Augusta with Ben Crenshaw in 1984. Crenshaw won and Nick didn't play very well. We were driving together to Hilton Head for the Sea Pines Heritage tournament the following week and he was very down. I said “You know, you're the best young player in the world. The remarkable thing about your sport is that it starts again, here and now.” He took that thought to heart and mind, and proceeded to win that tournament. Then, two weeks later, after meeting with [instructor] David Leadbetter, he said “John, I'm only kidding myself. I'm not good enough.” His game dipped and he lost most of his sponsors in golf, except for Pringle which stayed with him. I learned from that — how attitude and motivation impact success, the importance of perseverance and that talent without a bit of confidence isn’t truly talent.
TFC: Let's turn to On Course Foundation and how it started after you visited the British defense rehabilitation center in 2009. How did that resonate? With your background dealing with polio, how did you relate to those service members and what they were experiencing?
JS: I've never been arrogant and always appreciate what golf has done for me. It's the only game I know of that, if you are disabled, you can play on a level playing field with and against people like yourself. When I visited Headley Court rehabilitation center in the U.K. and saw a high number of injured young service members there, I knew I was in a fortunate position to help. I knew golf would help them. That's how it all started, first in Britain and then a few years later in America. On Course Foundation is not only teaching golf to guys and gals on a long-term basis, it also succeeds helping them get full- and part-time employment within golf and related industries. That's the secret to and differentiation of On Course Foundation and we cracked the code, big-time.
TFC: When you visited Headley Court, did you know right then you'd be holding a pilot study a few months later in the form of On Course Foundation? What did the pilot consist of – putting, chipping and driving?
JS: It wasn't so much driving because they were all new to the game. It was more getting an idea of chipping and putting, and then moving to the practice range and learning how to try to start hitting the ball. This sequential approach was successful and an impressive number of injured service members in the pilot program are still active participants in — and huge ambassadors of — On Course Foundation. They’ve gone on to become good golfers and, with our organization’s help, have secured meaningful employment in the game. Many members went through extremely grim times, post-military, in assimilating back into society. Several even contemplated suicide. These turnarounds represent extremely proud moments for everyone involved in On Course Foundation.
TFC: Less than a year after the pilot, On Course Foundation launched. Was there a particular reason it was introduced at the Royal Household Golf Club on the Royal family’s Windsor Estate?
JS: There’s a nine-hole golf course there and the Queen knew all about On Course Foundation. We were in the right place at the right time and were featured in Her Majesty’s Christmas Message in 2010 that showed footage from our launch event.
TFC: How has On Course Foundation evolved since then and what’s on deck?
JS: We continue to do very well in the U.K. with more than 1,000 members, as we call them, and more than 250 have been involved in some form of golf-related employment success. We launched in the U.S. four years after the U.K. with a bigger task at hand. There’s just shy of four million wounded American veterans. I was horrified to learn a staggering 22 of them commit suicide every day. We greatly focused on making an even bigger difference in America.
As a result, On Course Foundation is currently in 15 states, growing sustainably and strategically, and helping substantially more wounded veterans every week. We assembled talented management and support teams and a product that’s highly effective. There’s a golf course in every town and injured service members need to be out of the house and working either full or part time. Our employment partners, including Callaway, Invited (formerly ClubCorp), Marriott Vacations, TaylorMade, Topgolf and other golf companies, golf courses, clubs and resorts register only one complaint — the wounded veterans we place into employment work too hard. That’s a nice problem to have.
To grow On Course Foundation, we naturally require even more sponsorship, as well as individual donations. Pinnacle events like our Simpson Cup are crucial and we are adding to the list of valued sponsors like Charles Schwab, Apollo Wealth Management, Barclays, CSX, J.P. Morgan and KPMG. They see the value we bring to wounded veterans, the golf industry, and the culture and goodwill of their own companies.
TFC: When was the Simpson Cup formed and how has this event that pits disabled service members from the U.S. versus their counterparts from the U.K. in a Ryder Cup-style format elevated On Course Foundation’s stature?
JS: The Simpson Cup was formed for two major reasons. First, it stands to raise funds and awareness for On Course Foundation’s golf skills and employment events across the U.S. and U.K. The second, yet equally important, purpose is to give wounded, injured and sick veterans something to aim for in representing their countries again. We started at TPC Sawgrass in 2012, then moved to Royal Lytham, Congressional, Royal St George’s, Oak Hill, Royal Birkdale, Maidstone, St. Andrew’s and, most recently, The Creek. This year we are keeping it on U.S. soil for the 10th anniversary at Baltusrol, August 28-31.
TFC: Polio impacted your life at an early age. What impact has On Course Foundation has had on you?
JS: Being disabled myself has helped form relatable conversations with injured veterans coming into the organization. Some probably quietly think “Hold on a minute, I don’t have any legs, how would you know?” Then I share with them that my affliction with polio rendered my left leg effectively useless and I wear a caliper. My disability helps get across the fact that anything is possible and that together, we can realize that golf is a game that you can play for a hell of a long time. I get great satisfaction and confidence seeing disabled veterans turn things around from being completely despondent about their lives — with depression, anxiety and other hidden and physical wounds — to coming out the other side loving this great game, interfacing with similar veterans on a level playing field, and obtaining and succeeding golf jobs they love.
TFC: Obviously, they display resilience. What does that word mean to you?
JS: The ability to bounce back and remain positive. When things get tough, physically and mentally, they’re up to the task and golf surely teaches strategy, discipline and goal orientation.
TFC: What about the word, perseverance?
JS: Never giving up achieving your goals and extending what the military teaches you — be patient and even keeled in the face of adversity, opposition and sometimes failure.
TFC: What is it your hope when someone hears your story?
JS: That they realize anything is possible. Working hard and progressing toward goals adds real, tangible, mental and physical motivation to others. There’s nothing better than watching On Course Foundation members hitting their first “wow” shot and playing great golf to become the best versions of themselves. Sometimes you must pinch yourself watching them.
In March, I joined a group of 20 wounded veterans at Riomar Country Club in Vero Beach [Florida] for a fundraising event. Nick Kimmel is our foundation’s first triple amputee and to see him hit the ball 220 yards straight down the middle makes me smile from ear to ear. It’s not only that — after the event, he addressed 120 participants about how golf changed and likely saved his life. That’s special and there wasn’t a dry eye, including mine, in the room that day.
TFC: Through On Course Foundation, what have you learned about human spirit?
JS: Human spirit is everything, but it's just part of the overall package. Nothing is possible without the right people helping you work hard and injecting enjoyment back into your life. Don’t think you have to rehabilitate by yourself. There’s no shame reaching out to others who understand or have been in your situation. It takes a village to get in the proper frame of mind and physical shape after not doing what you’ve done for many years under the extreme rigors military life encompasses.
TFC: What else should we know about John Simpson and On Course Foundation?
JS: To optimally help even more wounded veterans use golf as a vehicle to get on proper recovery paths, support from the golf and sport community is crucial. It comes in form of giving time or money, hosting a fundraiser or simply telling your friends and golf club staff about what we do. We are here for the long term and look forward to helping more of these heroes get back on course and become part of the exciting and rewarding golf business.