Tim Finchem could be excused for taking a victory lap at this Players Championship, which is expected to be the last of his 22-year reign as PGA Tour commissioner. Although he is under contract through June 2017, Finchem has said that at year's end (and pending board approval) he most likely will turn the keys over to Jay Monahan, the Tour's deputy commissioner and chief operating officer.
Monahan will inherit one of the most robust properties in professional sports. Finchem, 69, brought in new events (the Presidents Cup, four World Golf Championship events) and reshaped the end of the season with the FedEx Cup playoffs. He reimagined the way the year starts, with the wraparound schedule, and changed how players qualify for the Tour, ditching Q school. He also—deep breath—expanded into China, Latin America and Canada; plowed through golf's swoon and the Great Recession; placated title sponsors and Tiger Woods; and altered the definition of big money.
"It's good to be a professional sports league, and it's even better to run a professional sports league," says Joe Ogilvie, a former Tour pro who manages money at Dallas-based fund Wallace Capital. "I think that's why you see such long tenures. These things are really good businesses. The biggest compliment we can give CEOs is they've widened the moat around their businesses, and Tim has definitely done that."
That's the good news. But Monahan, 46, is also inheriting a large and sometimes unwieldy house that will require constant upkeep. Where will the Tour take Miami's WGC, what with Cadillac declining to re-up and the host course, Trump Doral, owned by the radioactive Donald? What happens when the FedEx sponsorship expires at the end of 2017?
Ernie Els, 46, has played his entire Tour career in the Finchem era, and he calls himself a big fan of the outgoing commissioner. That's largely due to the explosion of prize money and corporate America's love affair with golf.
"As long as guys on the Tour keep their noses clean and give them a nice, clean product," Els says, "it's going to be hard to screw this up no matter who the commissioner is."
Be that as it may, Els feels changes are needed. Golf on TV, he says, still doesn't look right, and the pacing feels off. Viewers should be able to click a button to see their favorite players. "Slow play is a concern," Els says. "The product needs to stay fresh and fast, like other sports. It's got to work on television. The technology is there."
Monahan's Tour also must strengthen its partnerships with the PGA of America, the USGA and other governing bodies to grow the game, Ogilvie adds. (In March, the Tour and the LPGA announced a strategic alliance.) All of which will make up only part of the commissioner's to-do list.
The Tour is sometimes perceived as having failed to take drug testing seriously. At the Rio Games, golf will be an Olympic sport for the first time in 112 years (page 26), and last week former WADA president Dick Pound, noting the physiques of some players and how far they're hitting the ball, faulted the Tour, which tests urine, for not doing the same with blood, to detect substances such as HGH.
And can Monahan continue to line up a full slate of sponsors for the Web.com and Champions tours? In February, Kenny Perry called the senior tour a "freak show," adding, "None of our tournaments mean anything."
This year the Champions added events in California, Virginia and Wisconsin, but while purses on that tour have gone up, since 2010 they have failed to keep pace with inflation since 2010.
An infusion of cash wouldn't hurt. Ogilvie, who was on the policy board when the Tour's 15-year deal with Golf Channel was announced in 2006, says Monahan will have to shore up the main TV deal, which he says is costing players money. Ogilvie's assessment is based on recent sports-television deals, specifically the 12-year Fox-USGA pact, which was said to be worth around $100 million a year when it was announced in '13.
"The Tour left $700 million to $1 billion on the table when it did the deal with Golf Channel," Ogilvie says. "There's been astronomical growth since then, and with 20/20 hindsight Comcast got a sweetheart deal. Tim went for what was safe, and you can't fault him for that." (The Tour did not make Finchem or Monahan available for comment.)
Whatever the case, Monahan has plenty to sell going forward, even if Woods never makes a substantive comeback. The next commissioner will bank on twentysomethings such as Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and others. Fluent in social media and fashion-forward, many are athletic enough to compete in other sports. They are broadening golf's appeal, attracting even millennials, but will it be enough?
"There probably won't be another Tiger," says Tour player Tony Finau, 26, who notched his first win in Puerto Rico in March, "but I think all of us together can keep it going."
When Deane Beman retired, Peter Jacobsen likened it to Finchem's inheriting a Mercedes with gas in the tank. So it will be for Monahan, who will become just the fourth commissioner in Tour history. The job may be hard to screw up, but even a Mercedes needs a steady hand.