Tim Finchem recently celebrated his 63rd birthday and is about to start his 17th year as commissioner of the PGA Tour. During the recent Players Championship, Global Golf Post London senior correspondent John Hopkins sat down with Finchem for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session that touched on music, books, his own golf game, his successor, skiing, cooking, surfing, Tiger Woods and the current economic situation.
GGP Books first. What is on your bedside table?
TF I have just finished the second of the Stieg Larsson novels. Absolutely fascinating. I’m on Kindle.
GGP Don’t you like the feel of a book in your hand and can a machine replace that?
TF I’ve been on Kindle for about a year. I can read faster. It is something about the way you scan a BlackBerry; it moves. But you’re right, there is something about a book. I said to my wife: “What they should do at Amazon is you order the book and they send it to you and send as well a dummy with a jacket on it so you can put it on the bookshelf. It’s nice to have books around.”
GGP You told me once you are a Rolling Stones fan. Is it them above all else?
TF I put them in two categories. One, what is a group that you would take the time and energy to go see in concert. To me that is the Stones and the Eagles. I have seen them both a number of times in concert. Then there are the ones you listen to. I got into country and western music this past week because we had Tim McGraw here, and I went out and got his CD. I had never listened to country and western music before. I liked it.
GGP Classical music?
TF If it presents itself. I am not that knowledgeable about it. I have Mozart at home. I like the piano. Piano concertos are fantastic.
GGP Do you play a musical instrument?
TF No. I never had exposure to musical instruments. I have wondered about the drums, whether I could have an ear to do that. Perhaps when I retire I will take a shot at something for the hell of it. My two brothers are really good surfers. They have surfed all over the world. The first time I was on a surfboard was two years ago and I did a hang 10 – hung in there for 10 seconds. Genetically, there is not much difference between me and my two brothers. I guess I gravitated to golf and they gravitated to surfing, but I see myself trying to surf a little.
GGP Do you like cooking?
TF I do. When I got divorced from my first wife 27 years ago, I wanted to do three things – to learn how to ski, how to cook and how to scuba dive. I did all three. I just gave up on scuba diving. I am an avid skier now. The thing that shocked me about cooking is how therapeutic it is. It takes your mind off stuff. You’ve got to concentrate. For me, cooking is following a recipe. I can’t create or I haven’t tried to create ((((what???????)))).
GGP Are you on Facebook?
GGP Do you Twitter or tweet?
GGP I am sure there is an elaborate plan in place to find your successor. How long will you go on and what will happen after you go?
TF My contract is through the calendar year 2012 so I will be 65-plus. The board makes the decision about my successor. If they are interested in me staying then they will want to know if I’m interested in staying. I’ve pretty much decided that I’ll wait until the end of next year to think about that a little more. There are clearly other things I want to do with my time but I love this job, too. In the event that I, or the board, does not want me then we have very good candidates internally.
GGP Has the board ever gone outside?
TF They selected me but they did a search as well. In 1994 when Deane (Beman) announced his retirement they did look at outside candidates. I was the only serious internal candidate.
GGP No thoughts of moving to another part of the country in retirement? You are happy in Florida?
TF I have a house in Colorado, which I built several years ago. I bought the property 15 years ago. In retirement, I would split my time. I love the Rocky Mountains. I like mountains at least 14,000 feet high. I like the exhilaration of climbing. I hike, I don’t climb technically. The exhilaration of going to altitude, experiencing the strenuous challenge and the adrenalin rush of finishing. That is what I like about climbing. When I retire, I would be very active. I would contribute time to doing stuff for golf. I could help the Tour, I could help the First Tee, help out at The Players. There could be a variety of things I could do, if he or she wanted it.
GGP I can’t imagine you with a paddle standing on the 17th tee during The Players somehow.
TF When I stop being productive, I will play golf or ski.
GGP Talking of golf, how is your game?
TF I haven’t played since last October because of severe tendinitis. I had a cortisone injection three weeks ago and I am pain-free at the moment. My plan is to start working on my game again. Last summer, I played the best I have in 25 years. I went through this stretch with some under-par rounds. I was under par at Elie [near St Andrews, Scotland], for example, but that is a short course. I was on the 15th tee of the Old Course 1-over par and proceeded to hit it out of bounds on the 16th. I am playing with Herb Kohler and I hit his hotel on the 17th. So I made two doubles but still shot 77.
GGP What is your current handicap?
TF My current Index is about 3.5.
GGP Have you been lower?
TF Yeah, but a long time ago. I was probably 2 when I was in high school.
GGP Can we move on to Tiger Woods?
TF Sure. Inevitably.
GGP Do you think he will get to 18 major championships? Do you think he’ll get past 18?
TF I have no way of knowing. I fully expect him to regain form and win tournaments because he has too much ability not to and he has a great passion for what he does. After the 1997 Masters, people started talking about him breaking Nicklaus’ record and asked me what I thought of that? I said the great thing about that is it takes decades and that’s great for golf. I still feel the same. It is going to take a little while.
GGP So you don’t think we have seen the best of him?
TF Go back and look at his career. He has gone through these patches where he is exceptional for a period of time and then he is not quite at that level. It’s an impossible thing to predict. That is the great thing. It makes it so interesting.
GGP How do you assess the impact on golf of what has happened to him and what has come out about him since 27th November last year?
TF I don’t think there has been much impact on golf. In the short term, it has been a major distraction because he is not just a golfer. He is the most recognisable person in the world, probably. Maybe (President) Obama is first now. As such, he drives the media, and they are so over the top. I don’t buy the criticism of the process he used to deal with his issues publicly. I think the process he went through is as good as any other. I haven’t personally heard any suggestions that compel me to conclude that another process would have been better. It is not something that is going to go away. There are long periods when there is no new information and yet the media spends enormous amounts of energy on trying to find some, which I understand because people are insatiable on this subject. No matter what you say, say a lot of it and keep saying it, because people will read it or watch it. That’s their business judgment. I am not going to argue that point. It is just that in doing that it takes energy away from other things.
GGP It can’t be good for the game or its image, what is happening?
TF We’ve done some research on that and we don’t see any appreciable impact on people’s attitudes toward the game or the other players of the PGA Tour. The people I am talking about are our fans, a fairly intelligent group of people. Their view is that it is not a problem or an epidemic of moral decay in our sport. It’s not a baseball-type problem with performance-enhancing drugs, or a deteriorating situation with athletic conduct or run-ins with the law, or deterioration in terms of the sport. It is one individual’s personal situation and problems.
GGP So you haven’t noticed it has had any effect on sponsors?
TF No, we’ve even signed sponsors in this time.
GGP It seems to me that what has happened with Tiger is that he hasn’t widened the appeal of golf, but he has widened the appeal of Tiger Woods while playing golf. The yardstick of that is that when he plays the ratings spike and when he doesn’t they don’t.
TF I don’t agree with that. If you go back to 1996 and compare apples with apples our fan base is growing. I am not talking about participation in the game; I am talking about fan base. That is not evaporating because he ran into problems. In terms of TV ratings because he is the number one player in the world he is going to bring more people into a telecast than would otherwise watch. He plays in 16 or 17 of our 47 events. The other 30 are sponsored, every minute of them is on television for four days and enjoy a very significant cumulative audience. They create real value for sponsors. Now, would those sponsors like to have the increased rating that occurs if Tiger comes and is in the hunt? Sure. There seems to be this underlying negativity in the media that says, “There’s got to be something bad or something wrong.” If I want to sell this chair, I would say to you, “John, this is a great chair. It is comfortable, has sturdy arms and it will last 50 years.” But a lot of people can’t sell this chair without telling you that that chair [he gesticulates to the next chair] is a piece of crap. This is a great guy, this guy is a jerk. It is not necessary. The recession began at the end of 2007. The economic indicators weren’t good and we had to start adjusting for that. Two years later we are still 100 percent sponsored, all our products are on television, prize money went up in 2008 and again in 2009 and up again in ’10. I had a guy from Golf Channel interviewing me, saying, “You must have trouble sleeping at night. In addition to all the suffering you have gone through because of the economic downturn, now you’ve got Tiger Woods. How do you sleep at night?”
I said, “We’re not losing sponsors. We are growing in this environment.” I said to him, “Why not wait until the PGA Tour implodes and write that, instead of asking me to predict when it is going to implode?” There is this underlying negativity. I am not saying all is rosy. We have a good product and the business model works. We are very good at what we do. We are moving forward.
GGP Did you ever entertain the idea of rolling back the purses?
TF No. There was never a point when the factors I look at every day told me that was in any way likely. There was nothing that indicated to me that we were moving in a direction that was going to justify that. We were a lot flatter in our growth, and I predict some very modest growth over the next couple of years, but if you can grow in this economy, then whatever you’re selling is good.
GGP The Heritage tournament does not have a sponsor.
TF That is not to say it won’t have a sponsor next year. We have three or four situations that need to be addressed but we always have, even in non-recession times. We know how companies think. But we had more things to do in this regard this time last year and I was very pleased with the amount of business we sold from November 1st last year to a couple of weeks ago. In that period, we signed about 13 major pieces of business, and that is post the Tiger problem.
GGP You are confident that FedEx will renew?
TF They have several years to go but I think they get a tremendous amount out of us. The likelihood is that it will be a very long-term relationship.
GGP There is a feeling in Europe that you are diminishing the Ryder Cup by starting The Presidents Cup, the playoffs and moving the Ryder Cup to later in the year.
TF I don’t see that. I think The Presidents Cup has had a positive effect on the Ryder Cup. It has helped the U.S. team in a couple of ways. A lot of guys used to be accused of never playing foursomes. Nicklaus’ captaincy in The Presidents Cup helped loosen up the American team. We’ve had The Presidents Cup for 16 years and during that time the Ryder Cup has performed spectacularly. The calendar is challenging because of the playoffs but the Ryder Cup in Kentucky was huge. If daylight or weather present a problem, I think we should look at four days of competition. The Presidents Cup was only three days when it started and then it went to four, and we found that was great because you get an extra day of television, it gives you another day of results in the newspaper and it allows us to play everybody. Personally, I am traditionalist so I understand the stamina argument about three days and the history of sitting players out. You weigh the two and and I’d argue for four days.
GGP Hazard a guess at the result this year?
TF I think Europe would have an edge because they have more familiarity at the venues over there. It shows on the greens. I thought Europe had a huge advantage at the K Club. For some reason, the Ryder Cup is a bigger sporting event in Europe than it is in the U.S. I made the mistake of saying to Peter Dawson [chief executive of the R&A, which runs the Open] do you think the Ryder Cup is bigger in Europe than the Open. He bristled significantly at that. My experience is you start talking golf in Europe and pretty soon people want to talk about the Ryder Cup. And yet big as it is, Europe comes at it looser, more relaxed. The first day in Ireland I ran into Paul McGinley. Europe had waxed the U.S. pretty good and I said, “You played great. You’ve got a big lead. It would be good for the Ryder Cup to be tight on Sunday so why don’t you guys start drinking a little?” He said, “We’re already drinking.” That looseness will give Europe the edge but it should be really good.