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Finchem's legacy filled with far more highs than lows

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For Tim Finchem, it was time.

After 22 years at the helm of the PGA Tour, the commissioner and chief announced last week he would be stepping down, although the exact exit moment remains to be seen.

For Finchem, who signed a one-year extension to his current contract that runs through June 1, 2017, the mind and body are willing but the skillsets required to run the world’s largest professional golf tour have changed dramatically.

To be blunt, he’s an analog executive in a digital world.

“For every organization there’s a time when it needs to morph. ... I can probably work another five or six years, but I don’t think that’s the best thing for the organization,” Finchem said.

For months, the 68-year-old has been a reluctant retiree. Last June, he started answering questions about what many considered his final year in the commissioner’s chair.

The answer was always coy and delivered with a healthy caveat.

“There are a couple of things I’m working on that I’d rather get a little further down the track and they are big things, so it’s a little early to say where they are going to be,” Finchem said last summer.

“I don’t have to see them through, but I’d like to get both of them on the right track.”

Last week he made similarly vague statements at the WGC-Dell Match Play, although it seems likely one of those “to do” items would address the early negotiations for the next round of television contracts. All of the Tour’s current television agreements with Golf Channel, NBC Sports and CBS Sports expire in 2021

“My plan would be – and that assumes I can make progress on my projects – to step aside at the end of this year,” Finchem said.

The circuit named Jay Monahan deputy commissioner and heir apparent two years ago and Finchem said last week that Monahan is now running the day-to-day operations of the Tour. Earlier this month at the WGC-Cadillac Championship he seemed to concede that the time is right for a new set of eyes and sensibilities.

“Jay Monahan is back there, he'll say, ‘OK, let's wipe the slates clean here and put down some things we never thought about,’” Finchem said. “I think in the years to come, you will see the Tour doing things that maybe right now you would be surprised that we would think in that context.”

Whatever projects Finchem hopes to complete before his swan song, his legacy has long been established.

When he took over the circuit in 1994 there were 44 events with $56.7 million in total purses. This year’s total take is 47 events with $327 million in purses, not to mention the $10 million-plus bounty in FedEx Cup bonus money.

Some will say Finchem was simply in the right place at the right time, taking over just two years before Tiger Woods joined the Tour and sent golf on a meteoric rise.

Lost in that translation, however, has been Finchem’s ability to navigate what were, by any definition, tough times.

When the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression gripped the world in 2008 Finchem was able to maintain the vast majority of sponsors largely without the stardom of Woods, who has played a complete season just three times since ’08 because of an assortment of injuries.

Finchem’s legacy includes the creation of the World Golf Championships, FedEx Cup, The First Tee and he helped return golf to the Olympics.

But last June as he entered what had originally been billed as his final term, Finchem appeared to be caught off guard when asked what his legacy would be as commissioner.

“I’ve never really thought about it in those terms,” he said. “If Peyton Manning is the quarterback and you go to the Super Bowl, he had a great season but there are 48 guys on the team.

“I’d like to think that when I get done, people look at me and say, ‘OK, he worked his butt off, a lot got done and the players and the stakeholders looked at his time and thought a good job was done for them.’”

That’s not to say Finchem’s tenure at the Tour has been without its share of peaks and valleys.

The 2001 legal wrangling with Casey Martin over his request to use a golf cart during Tour events will always represent a curious place to draw a line in the competitive sand; and the implementation of the circuit’s doping program in 2008 has been riddled with missteps and lawsuits.

Finchem’s dogged adherence to the you-can-ask-but-we-won’t-tell policy regarding player discipline and fines also feels arcane and outdated, but throughout all of the trials the commissioner has remained consistent.

The only difference in recent years as he’s inched his way toward retirement has been in his often-stoic demeanor. In many ways the commissioner has softened, either the result of time or the timing of his impending exit.

When asked about his contract status two weeks ago at Bay Hill, Finchem referred to the ongoing projects that will keep him in the job for at least the next few months before smiling, “Maybe [the policy board] wants to find someone who can get them done.”

He may not be done just yet, but it seems the commish is already enjoying his golden years.