ATLANTA – The knock against Tim Finchem for the better part of two decades has been that he lacks a sense of humor. That assessment didn’t exactly change on Tuesday at East Lake, but it did improve, however slightly.
In what was billed as Finchem’s final “formal” news conference as PGA Tour commissioner, the 69-year-old attempted to alter his public persona by reading a series of pointed comments from various media, be it social or otherwise.
“Wake me when Tim Finchem is finished speaking, #InductionCeremony,” read one observation.
Another seemed to cut a little too close to home: “The more I study this Tim Finchem transcript on the anchoring issue, the more I like Bud Selig.”
“That one really hurts, actually,” Finchem frowned.
And finally, “Will Tim Finchem ever retire, or will he take Queen Elizabeth's method of ruling until death?”
“I used to threaten to do that, but then I realized, if I tried it, someone would probably kill me anyway,” Finchem laughed.
Actually, Finchem’s retirement has been looming for some time. In March, the Tour named Jay Monahan the circuit’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer to solidify a succession plan, and Finchem was given a one-year extension to his current contract that expires next June to allow him to tie up some loose ends.
If the tone of Tuesday’s news conference was any indication, Finchem will be stepping down well before next summer. In fact, it seems likely that he’ll turn the keys to the kingdom over to Monahan at the end of this year, which at least partially explains his uncharacteristically comic approach at East Lake.
In his two decades running the show, Finchem has largely avoided levity of any kind. It must have been a lawyer thing, or maybe he’d just never taken the time to see the lighter side of the business.
Time, however, is about to become a commodity for Finchem.
“I'll try to reverse the ratio of practicing golf and playing golf, which I get a fair amount of practice in. I don't get to play very much,” Finchem said of his plan for his golden years.
He’ll also take some time to reflect on what has been an eventful tenure at the Tour. Until now, that kind of contemplation has been a luxury Finchem hasn’t had much interest in making.
Even on Tuesday, on the eve of his final turn as commissioner at an event he helped transition from a sleepy way to put a bow on the season to a cash grab that has made golf relevant during a time of year that is ruled by football, Finchem was still viewing things from 30,000 feet.
Asked what he considers his legacy, Finchem spoke of the Tour “team,” the impact the circuit has had on growing the game and deferred to his predecessor Deane Beman.
“Deane Beman is a legacy. When Deane Beman became commissioner in '74, the net worth of the PGA Tour was $150,000,” Finchem said.
Although Beman’s impact on the growth of the Tour is legendary, the facts suggest Finchem might be playing the modesty card. In 2014, the Tour reported $2.21 billion in total assets according to the circuit’s tax filings.
It’s no secret that the Tour’s meteoric rise dovetailed with Tiger Woods’ climb to stardom, and many mistakenly attribute the circuit’s growth entirely to the former world No. 1; but that ignores Finchem’s savvy ability to sidestep predictable growing pains.
“[Woods’] domination at a time when you're bringing more and more good players along, is incredible. It lifted all boats,” Finchem said. “By '98, Tiger was dominant. So the questions were, How do you manage to grow the Tour when your dominant player is playing 17 or 18 times and you have 46 events? How does that work?”
In the 20 years since Woods joined the Tour, the number of events has remained virtually unchanged, with the ’96 schedule featuring 48 official events compared to this year’s 46 tournaments.
The FedEx Cup, which entered its 10th season this year, is probably Finchem’s most high-profile addition to the Tour landscape, with the four-event postseason checking all the right boxes – meaningful golf that includes nearly all of the top players late into the fall.
Finchem also oversaw the introduction of the World Golf Championships, the growth of the Presidents Cup, The Players transition to May, the creation of the First Tee and golf’s return to the Olympics.
But it hasn’t always been unicorns and rainbows for Finchem in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
There have been missteps under his watch, perhaps the most glaring of those was the 2001 lawsuit filed by Casey Martin to use a golf cart in Tour events. Whatever the reason Finchem & Co. felt compelled to dig in against what has been a non-issue ever since, the circuit was left to look like bullies in the end.
Similarly, Vijay Singh’s ongoing lawsuit against the Tour over his run-in with the organization’s anti-doping program is starting to look similarly shortsighted; and there are those who contend the commissioner doesn’t look out for the rank-and-file players.
But even Finchem’s most vocal detractors concede that he’s been a savvy leader through some difficult times, like the economic crisis in 2008 that coincided with Woods’ competitive struggles.
Despite the worst financial environment since the Great Depression, Finchem’s Tour didn’t lose a single tournament or playing opportunity for its members.
Whatever Finchem’s legacy, he left the Tour better then it was when he took over, and in the ultimate nod to his leadership abilities he also realizes the need for new ideas.
Never much for jokes, Finchem wrapped up his final news conference with a similarly out-of-character smile, “It's time for the organization to continue to morph. That's more important.”