February 17, 2008

Hawkins: Rocking The Boat

Veterans and long time Tour watchers are scratching their heads, but Mr.Finchem doesn't seem to have an itch

From unrest over its drug-testing program to the recent outcry over revisions to the 36-hole cut, the PGA Tour has dealt with more in-house strife than usual in 2008. Some players will complain about anything, but this year, guys who rarely rock the boat are objecting, as much about the tour's autocratic methods of operation as the actual policies themselves.

All that griping about the FedEx Cup playoff payoff suddenly seems a bit trivial. The cut modifications got a ton of attention, not so much because the issue was a big deal, but because so many players were bothered by its own policy board initiating a change considered "anti-tour pro." At least theoretically, reducing the weekend fields for practical purposes would only cost them opportunity and money.

"The board makes policy and we have to live by it, and there always will be decisions the players disagree with," says tour veteran Olin Browne. "The question is, do those decisions serve the best interests of the PGA Tour? I don't think the players saw how this benefited anyone."

When the Players Advisory Council voted unanimously last week to overturn the "new cut" and replace it with a different set of provisions -- the board must approve the motion before it becomes official -- it renewed the cry for an independent, "third party" liaison between the golfers and their government. Something akin to a players union, if not quite as antagonistic, with a certain amount of legal expertise and the ability to challenge commissioner Tim Finchem when the need arises.

The tour pros basically represent themselves -- not very successfully, some will tell you. Finchem, an attorney by trade whose bio heralds his abilities as a college debator, is a sharp tack with a history of subduing revolts of all shapes and sizes. Certain lieutenants on his staff may dance with two left feet when trying to win friends and influence players, but their boss is very adept at it. That's why he's still sitting in the big chair.

The last real challenge to Finchem's power occurred in 1998, when a small but boisterous group of rank-and-file types attempted to unite with Rhode Island lawyer Leonard Decof and strengthen the tour's middle-class voice. The project never came close to fruition, and as Tiger Woods' dominance helped make everyone rich in lean economic times, there wasn't much reason for anyone to complain, which isn't to say nobody didn't.

Finchem's 2006 decision to form a long-term partnership with the Golf Channel was the first of several big moves that had numerous veterans scratching their heads. Some wondered why he'd done what he did, who had a say and how much player input was involved in the process. Enter the FedEx Cup, a competitive restructuring that began with players talking about a shorter season but soon morphed into a "tourified" commercial enterprise.

When Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els all skipped a FedEx Cup playoff event last summer, a message had been sent. In particular, Mickelson was rankled by what he perceived as the tour's inability to listen and was frustrated enough to bring it up in a televised interview immediately after beating Woods in Boston.

"There can be some heavyhanded edicts," admits Browne, who has served on both the policy board and PAC. "I think a lot of guys want to be involved [politically] in something where we all have such a huge stake. Given the direction the tour has gone [in determining recent policy], there obviously has been some conversation [about forming a liaison]. We'll see what comes of it."