Lifetime Achievement Award: Tim Finchem
Tim Finchem is running late. The former PGA Tour commissioner retired at the end of 2016 but still keeps an office at the tour’s Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., headquarters, where on the eve of the recent Players Championship he has just finished a meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s all part of maintaining the deep political connections forged over his 22-year tenure.
Dressed in navy blue pants and a blue-striped golf shirt emblazoned with the Presidents Cup logo, a tanned and relaxed Finchem looks ready to play 18 as he settles into his leather desk chair.
Around his neck hangs a credential granting him “Inside the Ropes” access, as if the man responsible for the tour’s spectacular growth into the multibillion-dollar global brand it is today needs a piece of plastic to allow passage within the tour’s headquarters.
Finchem’s office is a museum to his remarkable career and a testament to his power and influence within the industry. Crystal awards crowd a shelf along one wall. Another wall is devoted to framed photographs of Finchem with U.S. presidents. Behind his desk sit two golf bags, one from the Ryder Cup and one from the Presidents Cup.
But none of the memorabilia matters more to Finchem than a framed letter from his late friend Arnold Palmer. The letter was in response to Finchem’s request for Palmer to be an official observer at the 2009 Presidents Cup.
Palmer writes that he will try to make it if he can, but it’s Palmer’s needling postscript that the ex-commissioner makes a visitor read aloud.
“P.S. Don’t send me this kind of shit any more,” Palmer writes. “I’m too busy.”
Turns out the joke’s on The King.
“I call him up as soon as I get the letter, and he comes on the phone, and he’s laughing,” Finchem said. “I said, ‘I’m framing this letter and putting it on a wall in my office.’ He said, ‘No, that’s just a little joke between me and you.’ I said, ‘No, Arnold. It’s going to be framed in my office, and here’s the second part: From this moment forward, anybody, any human that enters my office, will be required to read that.’ Drove him nuts.”
The letter and the anecdote is pure Finchem. It connects him rightfully among the game’s titans. Who did more for the game of golf and was more beloved in the sport than Palmer?
It also gives a glimpse into the self-deprecating style and dry wit of the visionary executive who skillfully led the tour through an astounding period of prosperity from 1994 to 2016.
Under Finchem, the tour’s business grew to dizzying heights with the creation of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, the Presidents Cup, the World Golf Championships, The First Tee program and the return of golf to the Olympics. Player prize money skyrocketed from $90 million on three tours in 1994 to more than $400 million on six tours today. His efforts also included a massive run-up in the tour’s media rights, a significant increase in the tour’s international footprint, and growth in charitable contributions in tour markets to nearly $3 billion.
The staggering level of accomplishment puts the 72-year-old Finchem among the most understated but effective commissioners in all of sports.
Ron Price, longtime PGA Tour chief operating officer, looks back at Finchem’s achievements as commissioner. “It’s a long list,” he said. “The first thing that jumps out is the size and growth of the tour. Our primary mission is growing the financial opportunities for our members and there was tremendous growth from when Tim became commissioner until he retired. And that growth is still growing.”
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Politics, not golf, initially was the early career path for Finchem.
The son of a Marine, he learned discipline and hard work from his father and a love of politics from his mother. He grew up in Virginia Beach, the oldest of six kids.
“We had no money, no air conditioning,” Finchem said. “I think what they talk about in terms of what generates us humans having motivation oftentimes has a lot to do with not having much. I worked in construction the summers of my last three years in high school. The summer after my sophomore year I was laying on my back under a house doing heating and cooling installation and I was laying in some cold, smelly water. And it dawned on me that I don’t want to do this forever.”
It was debate, not golf, that sent Finchem to the University of Richmond on scholarship.
Lifetime Achievement Award winners
■ Peter Ueberroth
■ Billie Jean King
■ Paul Tagliabue
■ Jerry Reinsdorf
■ Dan Rooney
■ Dick Ebersol
■ Bud Selig
■ Jerry Jones
■ Michael Eisner
■ Tim Finchem
“The biggest thing that happened to me in those years was my mother was a devout Catholic and a big Democrat and she got me interested in politics,” he said. “And the politics led to an interest in talking on my feet. So I was on the golf team my second year of high school and a so-so player, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to go to college on a golf scholarship. So I had to find another route.”
The road took Finchem from the putting green to parliamentary procedures.
“That next year I went out for the debate team,” he said. “And in those days the University of Richmond was one of the top five debate schools in the country. And kind of like you do for spring training in sports, they had a three- or four-week thing at the University of Richmond where they brought in promising high school debaters to learn more about debate, and position themselves for collegiate debate. So I did one of those. I then got a scholarship and I debated at Richmond for three years, and we did quite well around the country.”
The pivotal experience helped forge Finchem’s leadership ability and steered him to an early political career that began after he earned a law degree from the University of Virginia.
“It was great for me because it taught me to be on my feet, to communicate, to connect with people,” he said of his debate background. “And looking back on all of it, I think from a skill-set standpoint, that was probably the most important thing that happened to me as a young person. I also had an interest in public affairs so that fueled some of it. I was a big Kennedy supporter. When I was 13 my mother sat me down and made me watch the Democratic convention, and I came away from that enamored with him. I was in politics one way or the other from that time until 1984. So that was a long stretch of various campaign stuff.”
One aspect of Finchem’s “campaign stuff” was working in the Carter White House as Assistant to the President for Economic Affairs.
“I was 29 years old, and that’s a pretty lofty title,” Finchem said, setting up the punch line with his dry wit. “But with that title, we managed to get inflation and interest rates to 18 percent, which had the effect of eliminating any chance that President Carter was going to be re-elected. Everybody talks about Reagan having a surging campaign, well, it isn’t too tough to beat a guy who A, has interest rates and inflation at 18 percent, and B, the Ayatollah’s holding all the Americans over there in Iran, and C, you try to get them out and it’s a blown effort.”
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Carter’s landslide loss turned into a fortuitous break for Finchem, who after working as national finance director for the losing Mondale presidential campaign, set up his own market research firm in Washington where one of his clients was the PGA Tour. Finchem helped the tour on some arcane tax-exempt issues and his work caught the eye of then-Commissioner Deane Beman.
“One thing led to another and then the tour wanted me to come down here, and I was in Washington, but then my wife got pregnant and we said, ‘What the hell, let’s get out,’” Finchem said. “By that time, I’d decided I want to run a company. I was not going back into politics.”
He joined the tour in 1987 as vice president of business affairs and immediately impressed Beman.
“At that time, we had some staff but not a lot and everybody did everything,” Beman said. “We were just building our brand and our ability to compete with other sports. We were fighting a lot of legal battles. Even though Tim wasn’t a practicing lawyer, he did have a legal background. He was a very solid businessman, he understood politics and the tour, the player base, and the legislative matters we had in Washington, so he was a good fit.”
It took only a few years before Beman named Finchem deputy commissioner and chief operating officer, setting up a succession plan for Beman’s retirement.
“It wasn’t on the horizon at the moment,” Beman said of his eventual retirement. “I wasn’t thinking about my replacement, but I always had the philosophy that one of your responsibilities as a CEO was to always have a structure and people present to survive any kind of problem. In my opinion, Tim fit that mold as a person that if something happened to me, then the tour would be in good hands.”
Finchem’s rapid ascendency at the tour was no surprise to those around him. The ambitious and high-energy executive brought a laser focus to the myriad of tasks and challenges that came with building the tour.
Gary Stevenson, a former tour executive and current MLS deputy commissioner and president of business ventures, worked closely with Finchem during their early days at the tour. “You know how coaches always say [to] let the game come to you?” Stevenson said. “Tim was so good at letting the game come to him. Rather than forcing himself into a situation, or imposing his will, he was a very good listener and offered his opinion but after he took the time to get an understanding of what he was giving an opinion on. We got a lot done in a short amount of time.”
When Beman decided to retire in 1994, the then 47-year-old Finchem was ready for the corner office.
“I just felt enthused,” Finchem said of his promotion. “I’ve always felt good about leadership. I relish leadership. Having the opportunity to lead this organization, by then I already knew a lot about it.”
He immediately made his mark as the tour rolled out the Presidents Cup months after Finchem took over as commissioner. The creation of the biennial tournament that pits the top U.S players against top international players outside of Europe was already in the works when Finchem took office in June, but holding the inaugural event in September outside of Washington, D.C., was an early test for Finchem to execute his vision.
“Deane and I worked on that together,” Finchem said. “We wanted to kick it off immediately in ’94. We decided that we needed a credible captain for the U.S. team because we knew that players are enamored with the Ryder Cup, and there’d be questions about is this going to compete with the Ryder Cup and all those things you go through when you make a change.”
Finchem sold Hale Irwin on the idea and convinced the popular tour veteran to be the first U.S. captain. From there, the event has steadily grown in stature, serving as a prime example of Finchem’s reputation of being able to take the long view in all of the tour’s hallmark efforts, whether it’s leading the charge in bringing golf back in the Olympics after a century, establishing The First Tee program, the World Golf Championships, the FedEx Cup or raising nearly $3 billion for charities.
“He is thorough, understands all sides, and he gains all perspectives and he is remarkably patient,” said current PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan. “We never had to make a decision by a certain date or time. It was always about making the right decision. It’s exceptional leadership.”
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Finchem’s natural leadership qualities helped develop the tour’s brand, but it was his negotiating ability that led the way for huge increases in TV and sponsorship revenue.
Known as a tough, but fair negotiator, anyone sitting across the table from Finchem could expect two things from the commissioner: He would enter the room armed with maniacal preparation, and he would allow for flexibility.
“He was thoroughly and completely as prepared as any executive I have known,” said Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, the tour’s longtime TV partner. “He knows all the details and the numbers and priorities. But he doesn’t get locked into one path as a negotiator. A lot of executives come in with a plan and that is their plan. Tim has the ability to pivot.”
Finchem also was never afraid to leave the table.
“You have to be prepared on when to walk away, or what’s not enough for you,” Finchem said. “You need to know in advance where you have to be, where you might want to be. And of course to that point there’s always a variety of different pieces to it. It’s not just a dollar thing, it’s like other stuff you want, or what other stuff you’re prepared to give programming-wise, and priority-wise, and branding-wise.”
McManus jokes that some of Finchem’s toughest negotiations came not in the boardroom but on the tee box at either Winged Foot in New York or at the tour-owned TPC Sawgrass course in Florida.
“Tim is fun to play golf with, but he doesn’t like to lose and I don’t like to lose,” McManus said. “My negotiations over strokes on those courses have been much more difficult than for our broadcast rights. Tim is real tough over my handicap and the strokes I am going to get.”
When LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan and Finchem began conversations about a business development alliance that was announced in early 2016, Whan immediately sensed that Finchem already knew what the deal was well before the agreement was finalized.
“He’s the quarterback who never had to yell in the huddle,” Whan said. “I never felt strong-armed. His greatest strength was his patience, and he was really great in building a consensus.”
Finchem’s calm confidence was never needed more than during the economic crash in 2008 and 2009 as financial and auto companies, some of the tour’s biggest sponsors, cratered during the market downturn (see related story).
“It wasn’t business as usual and there was extensive panic outside the tour, but inside the tour there was no panic. Zero,” said PGA Tour Chief Commercial Officer Tom Wade. “We were in full hyper drive.”
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The primary beneficiaries under Finchem’s watch are the PGA Tour players who saw tournament purses soar during the past two decades.
Surely, Tiger Woods’ transcendent talents helped push golf to unprecedented levels during Finchem’s reign, but it also was Finchem’s vision that brought multibillion-dollar TV rights and sponsorship deals that enriched the players.
“Tim took care of the sponsors,” said Jack Nicklaus. “He held his cards close to the vest and didn’t roll over in negotiations, and when he had an issue, he held his ground, and I respected that. He just did a really good job of juggling things and coming out on the high end of things 99 percent of the time.”
Yet, there were inevitable skirmishes.
Early on, Finchem battled with Greg Norman, who flirted with the idea of creating a competing tour. The plan faltered after Finchem threatened to ban any tour player who participated.
When Woods in 2000 publicly criticized the tour for using his likeness without his permission, Finchem deftly defused the issue after a meeting with the golfer.
“The players for a little bit didn’t know how to take him until they got to know him,” said Davis Love III, who served on the tour’s policy board during Finchem’s tenure. “The more you were around him, the more guys with any sense realized what he was doing for you. You sought him out and asked his advice. But it’s like politics: You are never going to please everyone.”
Love, who is good friends with Finchem, points to the former commissioner’s ultra-competitive nature that helped propel the tour’s growth.
“He doesn’t do anything partway,” Love said. “He is immersed in everything he does, whether it’s skiing, fly-fishing or cooking. As a skier, he’s fast, he’s good in the powder and he’s good in the trees. He’s just good at everything he does. He also makes friends very easily and, for a person in his position, he never dominated a room.”
The ability to curry favor with a majority of the players was key to the tour, with Finchem keeping his relationship with Woods intact during Woods’ scandalous fall from grace (see related story).
“I enjoy being with players,” Finchem said. “I felt strongly that if we were going to ask them to do more for the sport, I had to be visible and out there talking to them. PGA Tour players are interesting people. They’re bright. Most of them well-educated. They will argue until the cows come home about some things that aren’t particularly important, but if it’s an important thing, they have good instincts. So that makes them easy to deal with because they get it.”
It’s a consensus-building approach that played well not just to players but to Finchem’s staff.
“Primarily communication, encouragement, education, leading the way,” he said of his leadership style. “Setting a good example, but identifying the course, the changes necessary, and encouraging people to buy in. I notice some companies get real big and you got a lot of decision making going on a lot of different places. We’re not that big, so we’re able to make decisions in a hurry. We have good, solid leadership in different areas. That’s really important.”
Finchem admits there were times when he demanded information overload from his staff.
“I probably from time to time asked for more detail than I really needed to just because I enjoyed the process,” he said.
Today, Finchem is still adjusting to his retirement, though he remains connected to the tour while honing his golf game to an eight handicap. He spent about seven weeks skiing at his Colorado home and is able to spend far more time in Ponte Vedra Beach with his wife Holly and his children.
“It was the right decision at the right time,” he said of his departure in 2016. “But you don’t do things the same. I was in a pattern for years and years, and you shift gears. Hopefully a little bit more work on my golf game. A fair amount of time on First Tee. And if Jay has anything he wants to chat about or occasionally I’ll call somebody for this, that or the other. It’s not heavy lifting, but it’s a good mix for me right now.”
After a few years away from the job, Finchem has gained perspective on his career. He sees the shift in the tour’s business, how it has become more technical, and he realizes that he left at the proper time given the new skill set the job now demands. He also takes pride in seeing Monahan thrive as commissioner, yet another testament to Finchem’s legacy.
“The sports marketplace and the interface it has with the tech industry, not just television, but across the board, requires a broader expertise than I brought to the table,” he said. “And I think Jay’s delivering on that.”