It’s a good year for retired Commissioners of sports leagues. First, Paul Tagliabue, who ran the NFL for 17 years, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 in Canton, Ohio. It took 10 years and a one-time only expanded class for the NFL’s 100th-year celebration to get across the goaline. Tim Finchem didn’t have to sweat out “golf’s highest honor.” He was a first-ballot guy as a finalist, just like his fellow Class of 2021 inductee, Tiger Woods.
“To be included in that group is very powerful,” Finchem said in a press conference on Monday of being elected in the “contributor category” to join the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida. “I want to certainly thank those that thought that I was deserving of it. I kind of in many ways don’t feel like I am deserving because I just had so much fun being in the job for so long. It was absolutely captivating for me year after year after year.”
Finchem isn’t the only one who doesn’t think he’s deserving. Social media was not kind when the announcement was made this morning.
it’s ridiculous. he happened to be sitting there when Tiger arrived and just got swept up in the hurricane. A rubber tree plant could’ve done that.
— Rick Reilly (@ReillyRick) April 20, 2020
And why should they be? Just days ago, my colleague Beth Ann Nichols and others applauded the World Golf Hall of Fame for finally electing Marion Hollins also through the contributor category. (Quick aside: If the Hall is going to continue with this category, please at least limit it to a max of one per induction.) Hollins was a trailblazer and while her inclusion won’t send people turning off I-95 at International Golf Parkway in droves, hopefully some of those visitors who spring for a ticket to go and see the locker for Tiger Woods will learn her story too.
But the World Golf Hall of Fame needed another plaque of an administrator about as much as it needed one for Augusta National chairman Billy Payne two years ago. This isn’t so much a knock on Finchem as much as a wider complaint that we’re honoring the wrong people. The Hall of Fame should be for the greats of the game, the players who achieved the moments etched in our memory. There is still one more inductee to be named later this week, but all of the other players who will be left on the outside looking in are far more deserving of recognition in the Hall of Fame than Finchem.
He led the PGA Tour through very prosperous times during his 22-year tenure that began in 1994 after Deane Beman passed him the baton, but Finchem’s been richly rewarded for it. According to the Tour’s 2017 Form 990, he earned $12 million and another $6 million in reportable compensation from related organizations.
“Deane’s left him a Mercedes with the tank a quarter full, and all Tim has to do is keep putting gas in it,” Tour pro Peter Jacobsen once said.
That is an oversimplification, of course, but best I can tell Finchem wisely followed the Deane Beman playbook and had the good fortune of having Tiger, the world’s most famous athlete, come along and lift the sport to new heights during his tenure. As Beman used to say during his good years, “we’re not selling here, we’re enrolling.” (Last side note: Beman, Michael Bonallack of the R&A, and former USGA president Bill Campbell, who are all previously inducted, could have earned this distinction for their amateur record alone.) I’m not saying Finchem had an easy job, but it would have been hard to fail at the job with Tiger and an ever-expanding TV contract.
Former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem will be inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame next year with Tiger. Fitting that he rides on Tiger’s coattails one last time.
— Robert Lusetich (@RobertLusetich) April 20, 2020
Even Finchem conceded as much when he told the following story about Tiger.
“There was some magazine that ranked me in the top 10 or 20 powerful people in sports one year. Obviously a lousy magazine. But people called me to say, what do you think?” Finchem recounted. “Well, I’m not — you know, the person that’s the most powerful person in sports is Tiger Woods, and they said, what do you mean by that. I said, well, I’ll give you an example. If I wanted to convey something, we’re building a tournament in Tokyo or something, I wanted to convey some information, I’d have to spend a week getting people charged up figuring out some communications, who are the people we have to go to to get this message across, this, that and the other. Tiger Woods doesn’t have to do any of that. Tiger Woods, all he has to do is issue a little statement, and his name is on it, Tiger Woods, everybody in the world knows about it. And to me, that’s real power. That is real power.”
And when asked about how much more difficult a job it would have been without Tiger, Finchem channeled his inner Captain Obvious and said, “It would have been a much more difficult job.”
You don’t say? Give Finchem a gold watch on the way out the door for a job well done and I’m OK if you want to let him continue as a board member of The First Tee. But membership in the World Golf Hall of Fame should be sacred. His election further validates claims that it is merely a popularity contest and charges of cronyism. (PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, who was Finchem’s handpicked successor, and other leaders in the game whose chances of being honored in the future probably also improved with Finchem’s election are among the voters. It all adds up to too much potential conflict of interest.) Interestingly, Finchem was a semi-finalist in 2019 and didn’t even make it to the list of finalists. It makes you wonder what changed in the last two years during his retirement. But his election is just another reason why the number of members returning for the ceremony is often low and why Hall of Famers continue to give their best mementos elsewhere. The last thing it needed was to enshrine another administrator, even if Finchem says he has a great letter from Arnold Palmer that he will donate to his exhibit along with some photographs of the greats that he bumped elbows with – from Gene Sarazen to Tiger.
When asked if he felt administrators should be honored at the Hall of Fame, Finchem demurred. “I’m not going to comment on that now, but when I speak at the induction, I will comment on it. I’m not trying to be cagey, but I’d just prefer to do it that way.”
I’ll save his speech writer some time. He’s going to say that it’s an honor to be recognized but the players are the real heroes and that he and his fellow administrators just support them. And people will clap politely and then we’ll move on to the induction of Tiger and the next time some guest says they want to see Finchem’s plaque will be the first time, but he’ll be housed there all the same between Nick Faldo and Raymond Floyd.
But as long as the Finchem’s of the industry continue to be enshrined, “golf’s highest honor” will remain just what it is – another empty slogan.