Commentary

Joe Ogilvie owns higher aspirations

Updated: August 24, 2011, 2:35 AM ET
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

On the day before the start of the AT&T National tournament in late June, a viciously sultry Wednesday afternoon in Newton Square, Pa., Joe Ogilvie beamed as he strolled off the Aronimink Golf Club driving range. Even before he ambled up a narrow incline surrounded by sweating fans, he knew this had been a good afternoon. He'd already spent the morning playing in a pro-am event with a trio of powerful executives. Now standing before him were throngs of kids eager to nab an autograph from any pro golfer heading toward the clubhouse.

As Ogilvie reached the top of hill, a small group of children hoisted scraps of paper in his direction for a signature. He even posed for a group photo with them as their mother proudly focused her camera. "I'm always happy to see young kids coming out here," Ogilvie said after walking away from the supporters. "Tiger really made it cool for them to like golf."

It may be true that Tiger Woods expanded golf's appeal, but it is even more clear Ogilvie could wield his own influence on the game someday. Despite not having the biggest name -- as proved by the fact that tournament officials had placed an identification card for Geoff Ogilvy behind Ogilvie as he practiced on the driving range -- the 37-year-old Ogilvie does have one gift that separates him from his peers: He's arguably the smartest player on the tour. The longer he's carried that title, the more people have wondered if his destiny doesn't lie in becoming PGA Tour commissioner some day.

That possibility has hovered around Ogilvie so long that it's easy to understand the buzz. He has the playing experience. He has the pedigree (and he has an economics degree from Duke). And he also has the visionary instincts and the business acumen that corporate leaders wield so easily. Where other golfers might only see young kids waiting for autographs, Ogilvie sees exactly where his game needs to be going.

Ogilvie also understands that it's time for him to be more candid about his future interests in a job currently held by Tim Finchem.

"There's no doubt that I would like the job," Ogilvie said. "I've said before that I may not be the next commissioner, but I could be the guy after that person. Even if I had to replace Tim when he steps down, I think I could handle that. I'd have an obvious learning curve, but I'd find a way to be successful."

Though Finchem declined to comment for this story, other golfers aren't afraid to share their opinions on Ogilvie's merits.

Sean O'Hair said, "Joe would be a good commissioner because he's played the game and understands the business. Being good at business involves building relationships and Joe understands that."

[+] EnlargeJoe Ogilvie
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesJoe Ogilvie's only career PGA Tour victory came at the 2007 U.S. Bank Championship.

Justin Leonard added: "Joe has a very good overall vision of things. We all tend to get locked into our own little worlds and see everything from our own perspectives. He sees the whole picture. He can relate to the guy on the top of the money list and the guy on the bottom. That's important."

That gift belongs to Ogilvie for two reasons. One is his everyman personality. He's got the predictably easy-going nature of somebody who grew up in Lancaster, Ohio, and enough humility to realize that being the smartest person in the room means you don't always have to prove it. The other reason why Ogilvie can relate to so many people is his life experience. He knows plenty about the game because he's had to do so much to find a spot within it.

Ogilvie has only one win since joining the PGA Tour in 1998 (the 2007 U.S. Bank Championship, which was played as an opposite-field event against the British Open) and he's finished in the top 10 just 26 times in 349 starts. He actually earned his way onto the tour by playing in obscure tours in North Dakota and in countries as far away as Colombia.

In fact, Ogilvie still vividly remembers trying to qualify for the Asian Tour in the Philippines a couple of years after he finished at Duke. Ogilvie became so sick on a bus ride to the tournament that he hopped off in the middle of a traffic jam, vomited on the side of the road and returned in time to arrive at a course where he'd eventually lose.

Such determination drove Ogilvie back in those days, but it's his intelligence that stands out as much as anything at this point in his career. While he acknowledges that he's become "the default guy" for people who have business questions about the tour, Ogilvie likes the role. After finishing his time on the driving range, he laughed when Notah Begay III entered the Aronimink clubhouse dining room and said, "Don't let him fool you. He's not that smart!"

Actually, Ogilvie is that smart.

This is the same man who jumps at the chance to pick the brains of corporate executives and heads his own investment firm (Ogilvie Capital). Ogilvie also so impressed Nebraska billionaire Warren Buffett -- they met when Ogilvie was playing on the Nationwide Tour in the mid-90s -- that Buffett eventually contacted and befriended him. Hell, one of the first memorable things Ogilvie did upon joining the tour was grab a seat next to Finchem at a banquet so he could grill the commissioner about the tour's pension plan.

When asked if such moves were designed to lay the groundwork for being commissioner at some point, Ogilvie shook his head. It's just his nature.

"I'm a policy guy," he said. "I study it a lot and while that may make me a nerd, I like coming up with ideas. I continually want to find ways to make things more efficient. I try to do that with my golf game and I try to do it in other aspects of my life."

Ogilvie honed that mindset and his game while playing at his family country club back in Ohio. Even then he had a sense for capitalizing on opportunity. Since his father was an attorney and his grandfather the CEO of a local company, there was no shortage of businessmen roaming the course. As it turned out, many liked the idea of playing with a kid who had talent, potential and an interest in stealing their secrets to success.

If golf was Ogilvie's first love in those days, business wasn't far behind. He used $500 he earned mowing lawns to buy a certificate of deposit when he was 13. He chose Duke because he sensed it would help him if a golf career didn't work out.

Even when Ogilvie was starting his professional career, he often wondered if he should've joined many of his college friends who moved into high-paying jobs on Wall Street after school. Ogilvie's final earnings in his first year of pro golf: $28,000.

Those frustrations largely had to do with the road Ogilvie took to the PGA Tour. He often roomed with three other players in hotel rooms to cover living expenses on the road. "Whoever shot the lowest ended up having to pay for dinner," Ogilvie said. "I freaked out once after I got a $79 bill at Red Lobster."

[+] EnlargeTim Finchem
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTim Finchem's current contract as PGA Tour commissioner runs through 2012. He started at the job on June 1, 1994.

Even after Ogilvie joined the tour in 1998, he battled "what if" questions regularly.

"I always thought Joe was conflicted early on between going to Wall Street and playing golf," said Norm Ogilvie, Joe's father. "I remember telling him that when you're one of the top 200 of anything in the world, that's pretty rarefied air. I told him that you needed a lot of confidence to get to that point and if he was tired of golf, then he needed to do something else. But I also told him it would be a shame to waste all the God-given talent he has."

"I think that was somewhere between 2001 and 2003 when we had that conversation," said Joe Ogilvie, who wound up in Q-school in 1999 and 2001 after poor rankings on the PGA Tour money list. "My dad always said that I underestimated my ability and I did fall into the trap of thinking I was a mediocre golfer who found a way to stay out here. When I started having kids [he has three children -- Lauren, Kaitlen and Patrick -- with his wife, Colleen] I saw things differently. I changed my game, overhauled my swing and had more success."

Ogilvie's success after that point wasn't jaw-dropping -- his roughly $9.3 million in career earnings is the kind of money Woods used to make in a slow week -- but it's no coincidence that more people started thinking about his potential beyond the game. He's been a member of the tour's 16-man Player Advisory Council. He's also served as a player-director on the nine-member PGA Tour Policy Board. Along the way, he's become more vocal on topics ranging from the importance of a strong pension plan to his excitement over the rise of young stars and the increasing popularity of the game worldwide.

When discussing the value in having more top players playing every week, Ogilvie said, "If you sponsor a NASCAR event, you know every driver will be there. You don't know who will show up in golf."

He is just as candid about the tour's upcoming negotiations for a new television deal, which are especially compelling given the struggles of the sport's biggest star: Woods.

"We're more insulated now because we have more appeal internationally so we don't need the same bump in revenue to sustain purse levels," Ogilvie said. "But you also have to think more eyeballs will be on the game because of technology [advancements]."

Of course, Ogilvie is just as specific about his own merits for leading the sport some day. He said he could learn more about government affairs and how to better utilize the media.

"We have talked a lot about how you position yourself to be a commissioner," said Norm Ogilvie. "That's a big operation you're talking about. We've talked about how Finchem's background helped him, how he's politically savvy and such a big presence. Joe knows your first job out isn't the leader. You have to work your way towards that."

Still, no player currently on the tour is a better fit for possibly ascending to that position whenever Finchem, 64, steps down (his current contract expires in 2012). Joe Ogilvie's only major black mark is a 2005 drunken driving conviction -- "I blew a .08 and it was just one of those things where I thought I was OK to drive," he said.

That hasn't diminished the respect he's earned from his peers.

"Joe is just a natural at working with people," O'Hair said. "That's who he is. Some guys are selfish but that's not his way. He's an intelligent guy who understands politics and finance and he's well-rounded. I don't see why anybody wouldn't consider him a strong candidate to be a future commissioner."

For now, Ogilvie appreciates such flattering thoughts. He realizes that wanting a job and actually receiving it are two separate things, and he still wants to play for five more years. There's also the possibility that his investment firm reaches a level in which it would be more attractive to focus solely on that. But those who know Ogilvie best suspect that it would be hard for him to walk away from the opportunity to lead the PGA Tour, should it arise.

Ogilvie spent his entire career proving that he belonged in the world of pro golf. If he could do that, then anything is possible.

"Whatever you do, you want to be great at it," Ogilvie said. "And whatever I do next, I hope I'm better at that than I was at golf. I'll have that approach if I'm a wealth manager and I'll definitely have it if I wind up becoming commissioner some day."

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers golf and the NFL for ESPN.com.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.