April 29, 2009

A Peek Behind The Curtains

On the eve of the Players Championship, Thomas Bonk takes a rare look inside PGA Tour headquarters

The Players Championship takes place literally right outside PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem's window.

The Players Championship takes place literally right outside PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem's window.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The epicenter of professional golf is in a rectangular office in a one-story building with brown wood siding and gray wood shake shingles, located beneath yawning live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.

It's the office of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who may not rule the world of pro golf in title, but in reality, he's the boss. That's what you are when you're running a business with annual revenue of more than $1 billion, a 47-tournament schedule with $278 million in prize money and 19 tour owned and operated TPC courses across the U.S.

At one end of Finchem's office, there's a sweeping view of the first green at TPC Sawgrass, where this week's Players Championship, the crown jewel of the tour, is played.

And it's right here in the tour's backyard. These are the PGA Tour's headquarters, not in some Manhattan skyscraper, but in a series of borderline nondescript buildings in reclaimed swampland, with the daunting and confounding Pete Dye-designed course attached at one end.

"Aside from the artwork, it's not very opulent," Ty Votaw, the tour's executive vice president said, sizing up the interior decorating.

Inside the West Building is where you find Finchem's office, down a carpeted hallway, past a flotilla of dark brown wooden office furniture and rows of metal cabinets. Photographs of smiling players cover the beige walls.

The green-carpeted Executive Suite is the biggest office in the building, as it probably should be. At the end near the window, two sofas and two chairs surround a coffee table. And at the other end of the office, Finchem's horseshoe-shaped wooden desk fronts a phalanx of six chairs that face him.

There are two computers on the credenza. A huge, flat screen television hugs on the wall. An armoire rests against the opposite wall, a striped dress shirt hanging on the outside.

Besides dozens of golf clubs leaning against the wall, other mementos are all around, most prominent among them a couple of dozen photographs of Finchem with presidents and golf's elite. There are also golf bags from four past Presidents Cup events -- a Finchem invention, just like the three-year-old FedEx Cup.

From the looks of things, Finchem runs a buttoned-down ship, at least judging from the buttoned-down dress shirts that are part of the dress code. Ties are required, except this week, because it's tournament time. But even on casual Fridays, golf shirts aren't allowed. Finchem walked in at a brisk pace. He was wearing a red golf shirt (Dress codes aren't for commissioners).

Meanwhile, spoken or not, the message seems to be that we're all about business within these walls.

It's always been that way, even if the business was smaller when this PGA Tour headquarters got started. Deane Beman was the commissioner in 1974, the Tour's assets were $730,000 and the "headquarters" were a couple of rented houses down the road in Sawgrass.

The first building in the current complex, now called the West Building, was dedicated by Beman on Oct. 13, 1980. A small brass plaque commemorates the event. When Beman left in 1993 and Finchem took over, the tour's assets had grown to $229 million and the West Building had undergone more makeovers than Joan Rivers.

Across the street, the East Building is the home of marketing, general counsel, and accounting and human relations. The South Building is where the championship management and Information Technology employees work. There are also Tour offices at the World Golf Village and in some rental space in the shopping center Sawgrass Village.

There's a curving sidewalk that leads from the parking lot in front of the modern clubhouse and extends to the tour headquarters, just in case you can't find it. But it's there, all right, underneath a canopy of trees, behind hedges and Pampas grass. This is the inner sanctum of golf. Inside, it's buttoned up, even if the shirt collars are buttoned down.