For someone who spent a good portion of his early adult years fully entrenched in the political world, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has done his best to stay above the current election-cycle fray.
But that fine line between impartiality and partisanship intersected for Finchem and the Tour on Wednesday.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Tuesday revealed in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News that the circuit planned to depart from his property at Doral, home to a Tour event since 1962.
“I just heard that the PGA Tour is taking their tournament out of Miami and moving it to Mexico,” Trump said. “It’s the Cadillac World Golf Championship, and Cadillac’s been a great sponsor, but they’re moving it to Mexico. . . . By the way, I hope they have kidnapping insurance.”
The Tour signed a 10-year extension with Trump in 2013 to remain at Doral, but that agreement stipulated that if the circuit couldn't round up a title sponsor to replace Cadillac, then it had the right to move the World Golf Championship to greener pastures, even if those pastures are in Mexico City.
“Some of the reaction revolves around the feeling that somehow this is a political exercise, and it is not that in any way, shape, or form,” Finchem said on Wednesday at the Memorial. “It is fundamentally a sponsorship issue. We are a conservative organization. We value dollars for our players. We have a strong sense of fiduciary responsibility.”
Mexico’s crime rate aside, the WGC’s move south is about more than losing a half-centrury-old Tour staple, or the challenges of prying sponsorship dollars from corporate America.
This is about creating distance, either by design or circumstance, between an outspoken and often polarizing candidate and an organization that has so adeptly played both sides of the fence for decades.
As has become the norm, Trump doubled down on the Tour’s move with this statement: “It is a sad day for Miami, the United States and the game of golf, to have the PGA Tour consider moving the World Golf Championships, which has been hosted in Miami for the last 55 years, to Mexico. No different than Nabisco, Carrier and so many other American companies, the PGA Tour has put profit ahead of thousands of American jobs, millions of dollars in revenue for local communities and charities and the enjoyment of hundreds of thousands of fans who make the tournament an annual tradition.”
Perhaps Trump and his run to the White House has become too toxic for Finchem and his salesmen. Maybe golf in South Florida has reached its shelf life. But there’s no denying that this feels like political expediency.
This is, after all, the same organization that regularly pulls rabbits out of corporate hats to sponsor events even during the most challenging economic times.
Although there has been a steady drumbeat to expand the footprint of the World Golf Championships - of the four, only the WGC-HSBC Champions is played outside the U.S., in China - leaving Doral for Mexico City seems less about expanding that footprint and more about shrinking the spectre of Trump.
On Wednesday, Finchem echoed comments he made earlier this season, telling reporters he hoped golf could remain above politics.
“From a political standpoint, we are neutral. The PGA Tour has never been involved or cares to be involved in presidential politics,” Finchem said.
While high-minded, Finchem’s desire to stay clear of what has become a particularly nasty political season was always unrealistic, if not duplicitous, given the circuit’s relationship with Trump.
In 2009, according to the Sports Business Daily, the Tour spent $420,000 to lobby Congress, and in 2014 the circuit reported $158,000 in lobbying fees.
Finchem is no stranger to politics, having served as a deputy advisor to president Jimmy Carter in the office of economic affairs in the late 1970s and having deftly defended the Tour’s tax-exempt status over the years.
But on this, the commissioner seems content to vote with the Tour’s feet, relocating an event that’s been a cornerstone of the schedule instead of weathering the current storm for one more year to see how the election played out.
Whether you agree with Trump’s brand of politics or not doesn’t matter, at least it shouldn't to Finchem. What matters is whoever wins the election will have a healthy amount of influence over the Tour.
“This time next year, if [Trump] is president, it would be silly for the Tour not to keep some sort of relationship with him,” Rory McIlroy said earlier this season.
If the tone of Trump’s comments is any indication, that relationship took a figurative and literal turn South on Wednesday.