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Finchem's folly leaves golf in disarray

Charles Happell

Charles Happell

Written on Monday, 25 February 2013 10:22

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I got an uneasy feeling about Tim Finchem from the first time I dealt with him in person, at the 1998 Presidents Cup in Melbourne.

The US PGA Tour commissioner, a former White House lawyer of diminutive stature but oversized ego, strode into the media centre at Royal Melbourne with a retinue of hangers-on trailing in his wake to give his thoughts on the Cup and, for those interested, the state of the golfing nation.

With the formalities out of the way, Finchem was asked – by yours truly, as it happens – what he felt the US Tour's obligations were to the rest of the world, in terms of promoting the game, ensuring its health in the byways, backwaters and distant outposts and, you know, spreading the wealth around a bit.

It was all very well to ride on the coat-tails of Tiger Woods, and suck all the best players from around the world to the US, but what about those small national tours – in South Africa, Australia, Japan and beyond - that spawned these players in the first place?

How could they hope to survive if the behemoth US Tour kept expanding its calendar of events so that traditional dates – like the last week in November for the Australian Open, an event first played in 1904 – were now being taken by the Chik-Fil-A Classic or some other run-of-the-mill, here-today-gone-tomorrow $5million tournament?

Greg Norman, Nick Price, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Carlos Franco, Jet Ozaki, Shigeki Maruyama and others – the backbone of the International team that week – had all cut their teeth on these smaller national tours yet they had to play a minimum number of events, and win a minimum amount of prizemoney, to retain their playing rights on the PGA Tour each year (something Seve Ballesteros was always unhappy about).

They became increasingly conflicted: to play the lucrative events in America from January to November, or forsake some of that moolah to go and support, say, the South African or Australian PGA Championship where there was 80% less prizemoney on offer?

The little tours were slowly being squeezed of dates, players and money. The Australasian Tour, as we've noted in these pages before, once stretched to a dozen meaningful events, and the state Opens themselves were once highly prized (Norman himself won four state Open titles in 1986, the year he led all the majors after 54 holes). Now that figure of meaningful events is down to three or four.

Finchem kind of shrugged - as if the notion had never crossed his mind before – and said his overriding priority was the US Tour. He was not commissioner of the world game and his remit did not extend beyond the boundaries of the USA. His KPIs all related to the health of the PGA Tour and that was that. The rest of the world could, basically, whistle Dixie; it had to learn to look after itself.

Sitting on his pile of money, with Tiger Woods dragging in record TV ratings and worldwide interest in the tour, I guess that was an easy thing for him to say.

So it came as no great surprise today to learn that Mr Finchem, a man used to striding the halls of the White House, had put his finger up to the wind and decided, in a move redolent of the most ruthless inhabitants of that building, that the US Tour would not support the ban on 'anchored' putters.

He'd cave in to player power and manufacturer self-interest - about 30% of tour members now use some variation of the long putter - and instead of fight the good fight for what was clearly in the game's best interests, he'd meekly wave the white flag instead.

The decision to phase out 'anchored' putters by 2016 was arrived at by the Royal and Ancient and US Golf Association last year after much thought and consultation, and it was announced to much fanfare.

At last the game was going to do something to rein in the hitherto unchecked use of 'belly' putters – considered by many to be an easy way for incompetent putters to become half-decent players on the green. Lots of people went so far as to describe this form of putting as cheating.

Even Ernie Els, a recent convert to the longer putter, admitted: ''As long as it's legal, I'll keep cheating with the rest of them.'' And so he won the British Open last year, his first major since 2002, at the age of 42. Just a coincidence? Wouldn't have thought so.

Adam Scott can't putt for toffee with a regulation-length putter but has become the world No.7-ranked player after switching to an anchored putting style which eliminates the twitches and glitches that most of the rest of the tour have to learn to combat with their 'normal' putters. The same goes for Singh, Peter Lonard, Robert Allenby and a bunch of other pros. Without the anchored putter, their careers at the top level would have ended years ago.

So of course it's cheating.

Finchem made the PGA Tour's position clear today, just days before the expiry of a three-month comment period on the proposed ban on anchoring to come into effect in 2016.

"Essentially, where the PGA Tour came down was that they did not think that banning anchoring was in the best interest of golf or the PGA Tour," Finchem said.

The Tour's decision was based on the lack of data to suggest that anchoring putters provided a competitive advantage, he said.

So now we face the ridiculous and damaging possibility that the British Open and US Open – the two majors run by the R & A and USGA, respectively – will not allow the belly putter while Finchem's tour will adopt an 'anything goes' approach.

(For those players who have difficulty controlling their driver, we await the announcement from Tour HQ that the use of grenade launchers from each tee will soon be permissible.)  

All in all, a very disappointing day for golf and one in which Tim Finchem revealed his true colours: a politician at heart who was happy to make a decision that had nothing to do with the health of the game and everything to do with expedience.

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