In the fall of 2016, Tim Finchem was making what amounted to a farewell tour when he was asked to define his own legacy after 22 years as PGA Tour commissioner.
Most would be reticent to follow such a self-indulgent path and the always understated former politico was having no part of it. He talked of his “team’s” relationship with the players over his two decades and how that “team” was the best in all of sports when it came to creating and executing a game plan.
“The team are the creators and the executors of what we do. I do these press conferences and play quarterback some,” figured the son of a Marine.
At the time it all sounded like corporate speak and as the commissioner savored his twilight years perhaps it was only natural to consider the collective contribution, but then it’s not a portrait of the team hanging in the vast clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass.
Nor was it the team that joined Finchem on Monday as the third member of the 2021 World Golf Hall of Fame class.
Throughout a career as commissioner that began in 1994, Finchem deftly deflected accolades and credit, but then a spot in the Hall of Fame is, by definition, an examination of one's legacy.
During his tenure, the Tour enjoyed unprecedented growth. In 1998, total purses were $96.4 million ($2.1 million per event). The year Finchem stepped down (2016), that total had jumped to $328 million ($7 million per event).
Finchem created the World Golf Championships – albeit history suggests it was begrudgingly offered to fend off Greg Norman’s world tour concept – and the Presidents Cup. He rewrote the Tour’s competitive landscape with the introduction of the FedExCup and a postseason in 2007. The 73-year-old shepherded golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016 and, perhaps most meaningful personally, created the First Tee, an initiative of the World Golf Foundation to make golf accessible and affordable to youth.
The First Tee has reached more than 12.2 million children with golf and life skill training as well as academic support.
“The First Tee remains a major focus of mine these days. Because of the upside potential impact of the program on young people and the growth opportunity it has domestically and internationally, it creates an ability for those of us involved in the program to really dream about what can be, which is very exciting,” Finchem said late last year.
But Finchem’s greatest ability to defer credit was fully on display when he described the serendipity of his tenure. Finchem succeeded Deane Beman as commissioner two years before Tiger Woods turned pro and had the good fortune of guiding a ship that was being driven by one of the most dynamic athletes ever.
“I love Jack Nicklaus beyond belief, but I have to put Tiger down as probably the greatest player to ever play, and the way he did it and his domination at a time when you're bringing more and more good players along, is incredible,” Finchem said. “He just lifted boats and brought in so many new fans to the game and charged it.”
Finchem’s isn’t false modesty, but it does conveniently gloss over some of the more trying times as commissioner.
Finchem navigated the economic crash in 2008 and ’09 when the Tour’s primary corporate sponsors, financial institutions and car companies, were being devastated by the downturn. In 2005, the Tour’s prize money was $249 million. A difficult decade later, that total had jumped to $319 million (2015). That growth also coincided with Woods’ own struggles, from scandal to repeated injuries, and proves the point that in good times or bad Finchem led with a deft touch.
Finchem will shrug and credit the “team” for any success despite the odds and obstacles, but it’s a study in contrasts when he was asked during his exit interview in the fall of 2016 if he had any regrets. He quickly lamented what he saw as a lack of global growth during his time as commissioner and what he repeatedly described as a desire for information overload from his staff.
And then he falls back on a familiar theme.
“I've been fortunate because the team I was bragging about earlier has kept me out of trouble. 'Tim, you really don't want to do that.' I've heard that on a number of occasions,” he said with a laugh.
These aren’t platitudes for Finchem. Leading by example was simply his style. As commissioner there are so many constituents, from players to sponsors to broadcast partners, the job requires a combination of political savvy and unwavering conviction. It was a skill set Finchem flawlessly wielded.
“Never taking credit was how Tim handled it. He relied on people’s advice and he made decisions. He wanted to grow the brand and not be the commissioner,” said Davis Love III, a member of the Tour’s policy board when Finchem became commissioner in ’94 and when he left in ’16. “Whatever he did he was understated and not pretentious. He was so well-rounded in sports and the world. It took players getting to know him before you realize how lucky we were.”
Perhaps Finchem’s real legacy was his ability to lead a Hall of Fame team.