PGA tour commissioner Tim Finchem recently presided over a gathering of golf dignitaries to discuss the game's future. Held at the World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Fla., under the title "Golf 20/20: Vision for the Future," this summit's tone was set during Finchem's opening remarks, in which he declared that golf's recent growth spurt is not over but in fact only beginning. His newest goal for golf: within 20 years surpass the NFL as the sport with the largest fan base in the U.S. That kind of forward thinking is being called visionary by some, but the commissioner's eyesight is anything but 20/20. In fact Finchem is turning into golf's Mr. Magoo, so farsighted he can't see what's under his nose. The Tour has a growth issue, but it's not the one discussed in St. Augustine. The real issue is that the Tour has gotten too big, too fast, and the growing pains are only going to get worse.
Mushrooming TV money and a bloated tournament schedule have fundamentally changed the Tour, and not for the better. As Tiger Woods's recent grumbling made plain, there is a feeling among the increasingly wealthy top players that the Tour should serve them, not the other way around. This is most clearly manifested in the waning support for what are supposed to be the Tour's flagship events: the Presidents Cup and the four World Golf Championships, both created by Finchem. Five Americans ranked in the Top 10 in the World Ranking skipped last month's American Express Championship at Valderrama, and that kind of civil disobedience is merely a prelude to the sit-in (or, in this case, sit-out) that is going to be visited upon the season-opening Accenture Match Play Championship in January in Melbourne, Australia.
The leading Americans love the idea of the World Championships, as long as they don't have to leave the comfort of the U.S. to play in them. Here Finchem is a victim of the inflation he created. Five-million-dollar purses in faraway lands no longer seem sexy now that the pot is $4.25 million at the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas. The Tour could pump up interest in the World events by raising the purses to $7 million, or even $10 million, but that would only make the problems worse.
If we have learned anything this year, it's that huge money reduces, not increases, motivation among the players. Today's top golfers are confronted with a delicious reality—they can work 30 weeks a year and get filthy rich, or they can work 18 weeks and still get filthy rich. The resulting lassitude has all but killed the Silly Season and has far-reaching ramifications for every tournament save the majors. The Presidents Cup, which offers neither money nor prestige, is on particularly shaky ground, with a widespread boycott looming in 2002 when South Africa is the host.
Finchem's vision has had an impact beyond the U.S. The European tour can't come close to matching the U.S.'s puffed-up purses, and as a result such stalwarts as Darren Clarke, Colin Montgomerie and Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal plan to play more extensive schedules over here in '01. Without its stars, the Euro tour could go the way of the CVS Charity Classic, just another casualty of the game's big-money restructuring. Even college and amateur golf have been affected. In the last year an alarming number of 19-and 20-year-olds have prematurely turned pro. With the Tour producing 45 millionaires in 2000, playing for free no longer seems like such a capital idea.
So where does all this leave Finchem? Rarely is a leader scolded for doing his job too effectively, but that is the case here. Finchem has been so obsessed with growing the game in the long term that he seems oblivious to the current, potentially calamitous effects of his empire-building.
Finchem is dealing from a position of strength on every front but the most vital one—his relationship with the players, independent contractors who have never been more independent. Aside from behind-the-scenes nagging, which has clearly backfired with Woods, Finchem is powerless to dictate who will play where and when. This is the Tour's fundamental structural problem as it lurches into the big time.
The solution is elusive—you won't find one here—but I do have a recommendation for the commissioner: The next time you convene a panel, forget golf's future. Instead, take a good, hard look at its present.