Throughout his more than two decades as the PGA Tour’s front man, Tim Finchem was never one to spend much time rehashing ancient history.
Even when his retirement was at hand and a successor in place, the former politico-turned-commissioner would talk about his Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., team and the Tour’s long-term health, not what may or may not be written on his Wikipedia page.
Even on Nov. 7, the day he announced to his team that he would be stepping down as commissioner on Jan. 1, ending a tenure that began in 1994, Finchem didn’t care to go over his career scorecard.
By various accounts, he took a moment to thank his staff and spent the evening saying goodbye to friends and colleagues. There wasn’t even a gold watch, at least not one that Jason Bohn saw, but there were gifts. Lots of gifts.
According to Bohn, one of four player directors on the Tour’s policy board, Finchem’s lowest round was a 67 he shot a few years ago in Colorado.
“I found him an 1867 U.S. half dollar to mark his ball with and I told him, ‘Sixty-seven is your best score, so your goal in retirement should be to try and beat that,’” Bohn said.
There was a lot of that during what was described as an emotional evening. There are people you work with and those you are friends with. For many, Finchem was both.
Finchem, who will turn the office over to incoming commissioner Jay Monahan early next year, was a pragmatist, some would say he was a visionary, while others would describe him as an autocrat.
What isn’t up for debate is that Finchem left the Tour better than he found it. Although he’s been reluctant to take a deep dive into his own legacy, those who have watched the circuit grow have no shortage of opinions.
“There are so many things he did, FedEx Cup, World Golf Championships, the growth of the Tour. Bringing all of the organizations together,” Davis Love III said. “The PGA of America, USGA, R&A, Augusta National, you’d think we’d all be fighting, but it seems we’re pulling in the same direction.”
Love has had a particularly unique perspective of Finchem’s reign. The 21-time Tour winner had just been elected to his first term on the policy board in 1994 and rejoined the board last year, at the request of Finchem, to help Monahan with the transition.
While many on the outside of Finchem’s inner circle see a leader who has appeared inflexible, Love said the commissioner’s leadership style is more of a consensus builder who is willing to listen to ideas and implement them.
“Sitting in on a lot of it, there were a lot of ideas he threw out and you thought, ‘That will never work,’” Love said. “There’s been some stuff, even the New Orleans thing [the recently announced team event at the Zurich Classic]. I was like, ‘I don’t know, team event, guys are already skipping New Orleans, is that going to help.’ But it’s already working.”
Finchem wasn’t always in step with the players, but “if four player directors tell him something, he listens,” Love said.
Throughout his career, Finchem never shied away from sweeping, some would even say revolutionary, changes like the FedEx Cup, which the Tour introduced in 2007.
Every time, the challenge for Finchem was to allow the players to see the forest for the trees – which was not always easy.
“Emotionally we may have thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Bohn said. “As players, you don’t want to change things. We’re not very forward thinking people because we’re emotionally attached to the current situation, and it’s good.”
Whatever your opinion of the season-long FedEx Cup race, there is no denying that golf’s post-season has succeeded in bringing together the game’s best players in major markets to play meaningful events during a time of year when golf has traditionally been an afterthought.
“Tim would probably say he wants The First Tee to be his legacy, but I think the FedEx Cup is his largest legacy. Most people don’t associate The First Tee with Finchem, but they do associate the FedEx Cup with Finchem,” said Stewart Cink, a former member of the policy board.
Bohn took a more esoteric view of Finchem’s body of work, focusing on the commissioner’s lower profile accomplishments.
“I give commissioner Finchem the most credit for The First Tee, and also for putting golf back in the Olympics,” Bohn said. “I think he worked really hard at that. But what The First Tee program has done for so many kids, that’s his legacy.”
Whatever Finchem’s legacy, be it The First Tee or FedEx Cup, it might have been his analytical approach to problem solving and crisis management that is most overlooked.
There have been missteps, like the handling of the Vijay Singh and Casey Martin lawsuits – both of which left the Tour looking insensitive at best and insular at worst. But now, in the twilight of his career, it’s telling that Finchem’s detached leadership style may have been his best asset.
“I’ve met some intelligent people in my life, but he may have been the most intelligent in the sense that every time he handled a difficult situation he never reacted to emotion, he only reacted to thought,” Bohn said. “When he spoke about an issue you could tell he thought about the issue before he spoke. He didn’t just speak to be heard.”
Finchem wasn’t always in step with his players or the media, and he certainly didn’t leave behind a legacy of openness at Tour headquarters, but his vision for the circuit and the game never wavered.