Life and even golf lessons from the founder of the Blue Jays

Simon Sinek, who wrote the influential book Start With Why, probably doesn’t know Don McDougall, but I’ll bet the author would say the founder of the Toronto Blue Jays has always had a clear sense of ‘why.

Picture: Trot Magazine/Brian Acton

We broke a 100. Howard Glassman and I recorded our 100th episode of Swing Thoughts last week. It’s quite a milestone for us or any podcast. 
Doing the podcast has given us an opportunity to talk with influential golf coaches such as Fred Shoemaker and Karl Morris, as well as giants in psychology such as Ellen Langer and Judson Brewer.
That’s one of the benefits of being in journalism. It provides access to people that you wouldn’t otherwise.
One of those people for me was Don McDougall. As the president of the Labatt Brewing Company, he led the negotiations that brought the Toronto Blue Jays into existence in 1977. He went on to lead Novatronics Inc., which made a key component of the Canadarm used on various space missions, and he served as chancellor of the University of Prince Edward Island.
I got to know Don in the early 1990s when, as a freelance golf writer, I wrote a profile on him for The Financial Post magazine. At the time, Don owned Accuform Golf, a Canadian company that made golf clubs to exacting standards. The clubs were so highly regarded that Davis Love III, Joey Sindelar and the late Canadian Dan Halldorson played them on the PGA Tour.
Through writing the profile, I became friends with Don, and he became a mentor. I learned a lot from him—about business, being a good father, a decent person, and even about playing golf.

Of course, I was fascinated by the story of how Don helped found the Blue Jays. In 1973, when he became president of Labatt, it was third in market share behind Molson and Carling. Labatt’s data showed their share was declining and it was particularly weak in Toronto.

Labatt’s competion was allied with strong sport brands: Molson with hockey and Carling with Canadian football, according to an Ivey Business School story. McDougall and Labatt saw an opportunity to fill a sport vacuum that would be tied to Labatt.

“We would be associated with helping to bring a team to Toronto and that would have a positive effect on our image and market share,” McDougall told writer Ian Hunter.

McDougall and his group came close to relocating the National League’s San Francisco Giants to Toronto, but it fell through at the 11th hour. Talks with the American League about an expansion team in Toronto concluded quickly and successfully. Once they had a team, they had to find a way to get it on Canadian national television, which lead to the creation of Labatt TV and TSN, which the company eventuallly sold for a tidy profit.

Most importantly, within four years, Labatt became the top brewery in Ontario and Canada. I remember Don telling me that it’s important to have a clear destination in mind, but to be open to opportunies that might lead you to that goal in different ways than you envisioned.

That scenario also played out with Accuform. The company’s greatest success came not from its golf clubs, but from the development of the Accuform bunker rake, which was a significant improvement over standard rakes for smoothing bunker sand. It became the go-to-rake for top courses and PGA Tour stops across North America. McDougall credits the late Ben Kern with inventing the rake.

I also learned some key lessons from Don on the golf course, including a game at the London Hunt & Country Club, where he was a long-time member. I recall our game fondly, not because Don beat me in a friendly match-play competition, but how.

At the time, I was about a 7 or 8 handicap golfer, and Don was probably a 15 or so. Don didn’t have a graceful swing, certainly not compared to mine. That reads as terribly boastful, but at the time, I was obsessed with my golf swing. I was always fixing this, trying that. My swing looked pretty good—people told me, and believe me, it was important to me to look good—but my game was maddeningly erratic; I could put together some good scores, but in competition I could shoot a million.

At the Hunt Club, I hit more consistent shots than Don, but I also flubbed easy ones and three-putted a lot. I careered from momentary elation to frustration shot to shot, and I desperately hoped that whatever swing thought I was conjuring would work its magic. Even though we were playing just a friendly match, this was my usual game.
Don found the trees a few times, but then he’d recover by doing things like carving a five-wood out of a tiny gap in the woods on to the green and sink a 30-footer for par, or make some kind of crazy chip shot to tap-in range. He’d laugh but also give me a wink; he was exasperatingly competitive.
Don moved with unhurried ease, and he reacted with good humour no matter what happened. He liked to win, but chatting with me and telling stories seemed the most important part of the round. It was a revelation to me that someone who didn’t ‘work’ on his game could have fun and play well.
I thought of that game with Don as I read Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, over the weekend. Sinek posits that many businesses fail because they focus on what they do and how they do it, rather than on why. Sinek’s key takeaway is: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
I’ve never asked Don why he plays golf, but I believe it’s mainly to have fun, relax with his friends and family, recharge from his business, and generally enjoy himself. And take a few bucks of his friends from time to time.
Performance coach Karl Morris notes that the most frustrating opponent is the player with a trained mind and an untrained swing. My best guess is that Don just considered a shot, grabbed the club for the job, and let it go. The greatest competitors play with a sense of detachment. Combine that with a trained swing, and you have monster performers such as Brooks Keopka and Dustin Johnson.
It’s my sense that Don carried that attitude into his life and the rest of his businesses, which now also includes operating the Mill River Golf Course in his native Prince Edward Island. There’s a lot of Canada’s little province in Don.
When people are described as ‘successful,’ it usually means they have made a lot of money and done great things. Founding a Major League Baseball team that has won two World Series and become Canada’s baseball team more than meets that standard.

But that measure of success would be woefully inadequate in summing up the inspirational and lasting influence that Don McDougall has had on most anyone fortunate enough to be graced by his presence. And, boy, the man can tell funny stories til the cows come home.

Click here to view Don’s convocation address at Western University in 2016, It nicely captures Don’s sense of humour, storytelling ability and it offers some great wisdom for life and business.

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!