Nicklaus is a college graduate and a former Navy SEAL, while Finchem served a two-year tour of duty in Vietnam. That contrast in background might seem to obscure or even undermine the admiration that each has for the other. But Finchem’s personal credo for the sport goes beyond the (relative) common ground that is the existence of Woods and Phil Mickelson, and the rivalry that follows them. That’s more important than a First Amendment Defense Act.
Finchem understands that nothing is more essential to the excellence of the sport than the growth of the game, at the professional and amateur levels. Both men have been part of some of golf’s most major successes, of course. Both hold near-perfect records for major championships, of course. And both men, in terms of authority and acumen, at least should be viewed by golf purists in the same light as any young president of the United States.
Nicklaus won 18 majors, the record for one player; Finchem won his 14, the record for a PGA Tour commissioner, according to some experts. They are, in most ways, in charge of golf. Finchem has overseen some of the greatest eras in the sport’s history and designed its policies and international contracts with all the nuances of mind and reach. Nicklaus has won four majors more than anyone else in history; Finchem has won more tournaments in the postseason than anyone else in the history of the PGA Tour. And, for all of their different places in golf history, both men, it seems, recognized that what matters is the opportunity to create and enhance not the wins and titles, but the success of the sport, on the professional and amateur levels.
Finchem, of course, has found a more lasting legacy than the signature accomplishments of Woods or Mickelson. His decades of service have been indispensable to the growth of the sport, not just at the professional level but with the PGA’s membership. The member rate in 1998 had three rates, one for golf professionals and one for tournament players, according to a recent Golf Datatech analysis of the tour. Today, it’s just one rate, a five-year exemption.
Just check out the PGA’s 2015 magazine, Golf Today. They list eight different branches of service in the military that, between them, comprise the vast majority of participants in the PGA tour. (The PGA hasn’t been able to come up with an answer as to why military personnel, many of whom are advanced student golfers, want to serve on the tour – golf isn’t really a fully-developed service, like, say, math.)
Finchem is the public face of the tour – there’s no better accolade for a commissioner – but, as a college-educated man, he’s always thought of the product on the field as better than the talent. He understood that the PGA Tour has never really been about making money, while the military has always been about building enduring human capital.
Take that unique perspective, and you get the evolution of the U.S. Open, which was once (to use a phrase Finchem’s friends didn’t like to hear) The PGA Tournament of the Year in the United States. Now it’s just the third-favorite tournament in the United States in terms of earnings this year, behind The Players Championship and The Masters. From July into September, the PGA Tour wraps up about every other tournament of any worth on the schedule – of the 10 majors this year, 10 of the top 21.
Nicklaus and Finchem met 10 years ago this week, in the locker room at The Olympic Club, as the two watched the U.S. Open, played on a par-71 course, which left everybody thinking at least one of them might use it as a practice round a year later. Neither of them did. Nicklaus, alone, had an 83. Finchem, seven-under.
But as Finchem watched Nicklaus from the bleachers, wearing his navy and black golf shirt, his leather cap, and no socks, the difference in them was worth the privilege of watching the game. Nicklaus wanted to see the men who were going to do it again. Finchem, together with the player, to begin again. The huge dunnap that Woods made on his approach shot on the fourth hole left Finchem feeling like he’d seen something that had only been seen before from Tiger. He watched and watched and watched as the player’s golf transformed and became transformed in turn. The years of any exposure Nicklaus got meant Finchem needed every bit of that exposure. And