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Wednesday, April 23, was a fairly typical day in the life of Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner. He awakened at his house in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., at 4:45 a.m. and immediately hit the gym for a punishing workout. By 6:45 he had arrived at Tour headquarters, bursting through the doors like an Old West sheriff entering a saloon, a style of entrance that Finchem's colleagues became accustomed to long ago. "He often comes to work straight from the gym, and you can feel how charged up he is to take on the day," says Charlie Zink, the Tour's co-chief operating officer. "His energy level sets a tone for everyone here."
He spent an hour clearing his desk; then Finchem was wheels-up in the Tour's private jet, bound for Dallas, site of the EDS Byron Nelson Championship. Finchem averages 170 days a year on the road, attending to a dizzying number of responsibilities. Within his purview is not only the PGA Tour but also the Champions and Nationwide tours. That means he has to manage about 600 players along with more than 2,200 Tour employees, 100 or so corporate sponsors, a like number of host venues and a multitude of television networks and other media outlets.
Upon arriving at the tournament site, Finchem made a social call to Nelson's widow, Peggy; sat for an interview with the Morning News; then huddled with the leadership of the Salesmanship Club, the nonprofit that runs the tournament. Finchem is a details wonk, and there is nothing he enjoys more than kicking around with his tournament people little ways to improve what he refers to as "the product." Says Finchem, "Connecting with people, getting things done—that's what makes the travel worthwhile."
After the Salesmanship meeting Finchem presided over a ceremony commemorating the revamped host course, the TPC Four Seasons Resort. Finchem has been speaking in front of crowds going back to his days as a high school debate champion, but his body language betrays his lack of enthusiasm for the pomp and circumstance that comes with his job. Even when a crowd has gathered specifically for him, as in Dallas, he moves through it with his eyes down and shoulders hunched slightly forward, as if hoping not to be noticed.
After the ceremony Finchem had a private sit-down with Ron Rittenmeyer, CEO of the Nelson's title sponsor, EDS, and then they held a joint press conference announcing that the sponsorship deal with the tournament had been extended through 2014. It was a nice piece of news in a brutal business environment, but Finchem did not exactly exude glee. He never looks more stiff than during his press-conference appearances, at which he hides in plain sight behind lawyerly circumlocutions that are almost impossible to follow without a thesaurus and a compass. At this presser he drew two laughs, which is two more than usual.
Upon fleeing the media center Finchem found a quiet spot where he could make a round of phone calls back to Tour headquarters to announce a series of staff changes. He has four years left on a contract extension that will take him to his 65th birthday, and over the last couple of years reorganizing the Tour's executive ranks has been a priority. The institution may not be any leaner—the 2008 media guide lists no fewer than 40 people carrying the title of president or vice president—but the Tour has become more agile and responsive, particularly in the areas of communications and new media. Those who have been swept aside in the corporate housecleaning get collegial going-away parties and often personal help from the commissioner in finding another job, but such niceties can't entirely disguise how unsentimental Finchem is about embracing change. "An organization needs to be constantly refreshed," he says.
The commissioner's time in Dallas ended with a two-hour meeting with the player advisory council, the 16-man body that makes policy recommendations to the Tour's board of directors, which theoretically governs the Tour. The board is made up of four players, four titans of the business world and an officer of the PGA of America. Finchem does not have a vote, but he does have the dominant voice at every meeting, and he has spent his 14 years as commissioner successfully bending the board to his will. "He's a master at building a consensus, especially when it doesn't appear a consensus exists," says Joe Ogilvie, one of the players on the board. "Watching him in action, it's pretty damn impressive. You can tell he was a debater and a lawyer the way he makes his arguments."
When the meeting adjourned Finchem hopped back in his plane, landing in Florida around 7:45 p.m, 12 hours after he left. If he was drained from a nonstop day, it didn't show. "I'm already looking forward to getting to the office tomorrow to follow up on some of the things that were discussed today," he said.
Finchem's relentlessness may be the defining trait of his epoch as commissioner. He has been an inexorable agent of change during an era of phenomenal growth, and in his never-ending quest to showcase the Tour's players, he has played midwife to the Presidents Cup, the World Golf Championships and the FedEx Cup. Thanks to Finchem's bare-knuckled negotiating of TV contracts, the Tour's purses have mushroomed from $56.4 million in 1994 to more than $270 million last year, when the 99th man on the money list banked more than a million bucks. Further, in an era of broken-down football players limping to Capitol Hill to testify about how their game left them disfigured and destitute, the Tour's retirement plan is the envy of professional sports, with numerous players projected to realize eight- and even nine-figure nest eggs. Finchem is also a marketing maven who has rebranded the Tour as a benevolent instrument of charity that since '93 has dispersed more than $980 million across the nation to worthy causes.
Yet even as Tour players have become fabulously wealthy under Finchem, there exists an undercurrent of discontent with his leadership. This bad buzz got a high-profile airing last fall when Phil Mickelson called out Finchem on national TV in the moments after a heady win at the Deutsche Bank Championship. Mickelson was peeved by some of the details in the execution of the inaugural FedEx Cup, and when he skipped the third of the so-called playoff events it was widely interpreted as a slap at Finchem. The incident followed the massive public-relations hit that came when Tiger Woods did not bother to show up for the first playoff event. Apparently, the hard feelings linger. Asked to comment about his relationship with the commissioner, Mickelson said, "I'm not going to touch that one. I promised my wife I wouldn't start any controversies this year."