Sure, Tiger Woods played a key role in the PGA Tour’s rise in the past quarter century, but the former commissioner navigated a global crisis of his own while building a sponsorship powerhouse
The selection of Tim Finchem into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday was not a surprise.
For a man who oversaw one of the greatest expansions in his sport in modern history, he deserves the nod for excellence not on the field but off.
It would be easy to say that Finchem’s accomplishments as PGA Tour commissioner were in no small part tied to the arrival of Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, and Finchem does not dismiss the timing. But one player – even someone of Woods’ transcendent stature – does not make a sport; he just makes it much easier to grow.
Remember, Michael Jordan was in Chicago for four years before Phil Jackson took over as coach, and then Jordan and the Bulls won six NBA titles in eight years.
But Woods’ global celebrity made Finchem’s world a lot easier.
“Tiger coming on the scene and generating the interest he generated took our sport to another level,” Finchem said in a conference call Monday after the announcement of his pending induction with Woods, the late Marion Hollins and a fourth member to be named. “And it continues on to today, clearly, without question. His impact is ongoing. It's just unique and great, and as a sport we were blessed that he didn't like tennis that much.”
In his 22-year tenure, Finchem led a meteoric rise in prize money as purses soared from less than $100 million on three tours to more than $400 million on six tours when he retired at the end of 2016, according to the hall. He is credited with having created the FedEx Cup playoffs, the Presidents Cup matches and the World Golf Championships. He also played a pivotal role in the return of golf to the Olympics, in 2016, after a 112-year absence.
Jay Monahan, Finchem’s hand-picked successor, must contend with a PGA Tour that has been suspended since March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet Finchem, who turned 73 on Sunday, gives Monahan high marks for his leadership in the crisis.
“I can't tell you how many people in the last three weeks or months have come up to me and said, would you like to be commissioner now,” Finchem said. “The answer is, yes, because that's what you like to do, and I loved doing it. But no, Jay, is dealing with a unique set of circumstances. And when I say that, and I think what clearly makes it unique and makes it difficult is that it's just all new territory.”
That new territory requires an uncharted direction – specifically, how and when to bring sports back safely to the masses.
The PGA Tour halted play March 12, after the first round of its flagship Players Championship. Play will have been suspended for three months when competition returns June 11 with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas.
Finchem never had to face such a lull in competition. This interruption came during one of the high points of the year, at the Tour’s hometown event. It led to postponements of the Masters, PGA and U.S. Open, the R&A’s cancellation of the British Open and a reordering of the last six months of the year.
“Jay thus far has done a fabulous job,” Finchem said. “He is, as you know, a superb communicator, and he is going about it with his team in a way that is spectacular, in my view. I think if you tried to compare it, I just don't think the challenges that we had are in the same ballpark of what he's dealing with.”
The closest experience to the COVID-19 crisis that Finchem faced during his 1994-2016 reign was the global financial crisis of 2007-08.
Finchem kept current sponsors in place and brought in new sponsors to fill gaps. He used the financial crisis as an advantage, working toward making the PGA Tour business better than it had been.
“One of the things we found during that period was that when you get into that serious of a recession, a lot of companies start to cut back,” Finchem said. “You're seeing it now, actually. Twenty-two million people are unemployed right now – new unemployed. But companies want to cut back. In doing the cutbacks, they don't want to fire people if they can avoid it. Sometimes it's not possible. But during my tenure, I watched companies get much more sophisticated in analyzing the value that they get from, in our case, the involvement with the PGA Tour.”
Because of how companies started to approach large expenditures after the financial crisis, the PGA Tour’s value proposition won out over many other sports.
Of course, having Woods contending again is a large part of the PGA Tour. Woods has found the winner’s circle three times in the past seven months, including the 2019 Masters, and equaled Sam Snead’s record for career victories, at 82. Monahan should be in a good position once golf is back to competing on a weekly basis.
Finchem said he hasn’t talked with Monahan much during the coronavirus pandemic, but lives only 100 yards down the road from Monahan in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., near the Tour’s headquarters. So, Finchem is available if needed, provided that he’s not working on a golf game that was mostly neglected while he was the commissioner.
“It's kind of difficult to avoid working in the dark a little bit when you have so many variables sitting out there,” Finchem said. “He's got to spend an enormous percentage of his time in those areas, and he's got a great team. Some of that team was inherited from the time I was doing the job, but it's a terrific team, which he has strengthened considerably even in these last three years, and that makes all the difference in the world.”
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