Whan’s world: The LPGA’s commissioner reflects on eight years in charge

For Mike Whan, running the Ladies Professional Golf Association is all about creating opportunities. It is a mantra that has come to define his eight years as the tour's commissioner, one which has taken women's golf and its leading circuit to new heights and unprecedented popularity.

Whan’s world: The LPGA’s commissioner reflects on eight years in charge

If there’s a rulebook for golf administration, Mike Whan hasn’t read it. Throughout his time as commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), the American has come to view his role not as a sports administrator per se, but as a peddler of opportunities.

At 52, Whan is part of a younger generation of golf executives shaping the future of the professional game. Alongside the likes of Jay Monahan, his opposite number at the PGA Tour who took the reins in January as Tim Finchem’s handpicked successor, and Keith Pelley, the Canadian who has made a name for himself as an outspoken innovator during his short time heading up the men’s European circuit, Whan is at the sharp end of a sport vying to adapt and evolve to changing times. It is a role he clearly relishes.

A straight-talking former marketer, Whan radiates the kind of unabashed enthusiasm one rarely associates with golf’s traditionally conservative leadership. His high-energy, open approach to running the LPGA has earned him the universal respect of players, the media, and sponsors alike. Today he is considered the likeable, approachable face of the tour, described by many within the game as a go-getter with lofty ambition and a Midas touch to boot.

It is a brand of leadership that has, on reflection, served the LPGA well. When Whan became the organisation’s eighth commissioner in January 2010, the tour was in the doldrums, running a depleted schedule of 25 events and offering US$41.5 million in total prize money as it struggled to shake off the lingering effects of the economic recession. Back then, a raft of sponsors had recently departed and relations between the LPGA and its tournaments were strained to breaking point. To make matters worse, household names like Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa had moved on, leaving women’s golf facing an uncertain future with a dearth of marketable stars.

Lexi Thompson tees off during the third round of the ANA Inspiration golf tournament at Mission Hills

Fast forward to today, however, and the picture is altogether rosier. This year the LPGA boasts 35 events, including August’s Solheim Cup in Iowa and four newly added stops in Wisconsin, Indianapolis, Scotland and New Zealand. The profiles of its leading players – youngsters like world number one Lydia Ko and the American sensation Lexi Thompson, for example – are on the rise, while the financial health of its tournaments is more robust than ever. Today, the tour offers a record US$67.35 million in total prize money, with 11 of the 30 returning events having increased their purses for 2017. 16 events now feature purses of US$2 million or higher – double the number the tour had in 2011 – while in 2016 a record 15 LPGA players surpassed US$1 million in single season earnings.

All that is testament to Whan’s vision, but don’t expect this characteristically self-deprecating executive – someone for whom deflecting praise has become second nature – to take credit for it.

“The number one thing I’ve done since the day I got here and I continue to do is surround myself with people who are better at their jobs than I am at mine,” he says. “I mean, I’m both old enough and realistic enough to know that I’ve never been the smartest person in the room and that’s kind of depressing, but it’s fact.

“I was quarterback growing up and it wasn’t because I had a great arm. It was because I wasn’t fast enough to be a running back and I wasn’t strong enough to be a lineman. My job was to get the ball into a more talented person’s hands quickly, and I’ve been doing that since I was nine years old.”

No matter how much he may insist otherwise, Whan’s impact on the LPGA has been nothing short of transformative. By instilling a more internationalist mindset on the tour, he has spearheaded its evolution from US-centric organisation to global media property. Under his leadership, the tour’s television hours have nearly doubled in the past six years, growing to more than 430 hours of coverage across 175 countries.

But his real masterstroke was to take what was deemed the LPGA’s greatest weakness – the dominance of an emerging crop of Asian players at the top of the world rankings – and make it one of its standout strengths. In a bid to capitalise on the surging popularity of a growing contingent of talent from places like South Korea, China and Thailand, he increased the tour’s footprint in Asia, adding new tournaments to the schedule – including an event that will be held in mainland China for the next decade – forging co-sanctioning partnerships with regional bodies, and creating two Asian swings on the annual calendar.

Stars such as Lexi Thompson (left) and Lydia Ko have been encouraged to embrace sponsors and their needs

“I think the schedule balance is right,” he says now, speaking to SportsPro from the LPGA’s Florida headquarters during a rare off-week in mid-April. “We still take a couple of months off for an off-season. We play in Asia in the spring and in Asia in the fall. We’re committed to being global – we probably play 40 per cent of our events or so outside of North America – but we’re also committed to providing a home base.

“I didn’t want to be nomadic,” he adds. “I didn’t want players to make it to the LPGA and then everybody just live wherever they grew up and just meet at tournaments and all go home on Saturdays and Sundays. I see that in tennis and that’s not really what we wanted. We wanted to have players from around the world move here, be part of here, commit to North America and we’d move as an organisation on a global schedule.”

A key reason for that, says Whan, is to keep sponsors happy. “I know what it’s like to be a sponsor and a big cheque-writer to a league or a sport,” he says, referring to his prior roles in sports marketing for the likes of Procter & Gamble, the Wilson Sporting Goods Company and TaylorMade Adidas Golf. “I didn’t want to build a schedule where I fly around the country apologising to CEOs because their field strength isn’t any good. By building a schedule that has natural spacing in it, that provides some weeks off where I could, I believe that creates strong fields and TV interest week in, week out.”

The ability to take such a selective approach is, for Whan, a sure sign of progress. With greater financial security and more freedom to think strategically, he can now act more like a commissioner in the true sense of the word. “I spent the first four or five years of my career in this job pursuing the business we didn’t have – you know, all the tournaments we needed to add to the schedule,” he recalls. “It’s been nice in the last couple of years to really focus on the events and the customers that we do have.”

It’s easy to get the sales team or the executive or the league behind your cheque; it’s a lot harder to get the athletes behind it. 

Since day one, putting the needs of clients first has been a guiding principle for Whan’s LPGA. Its much-heralded ‘role reversal’ business philosophy – a strategic ethos predicated on the notion that rights holders become a far more valuable proposition when they put themselves in the shoes of the cheque-writer – has helped turn the tour into one of the most sponsor-friendly properties in all of sport. Before each tournament, LPGA players are distributed partner profile sheets informing them of who’s writing the cheque, what the title sponsor’s motives and goals are, and where to send thank you letters. The feedback from sponsors has been resoundingly positive.

“I’ve yet to meet a CEO who’s driving to work who thought to themselves, if I just had a golf tournament, then my brand would be great,” Whan says, explaining the rationale behind the philosophy. “We sell an entity that nobody needs. You don’t need it to succeed, so if we don’t understand that – and I don’t mean we the staff, I mean we right down to the players and caddies – then we’re not going to be in business long-term.

“It’s easy to get the sales team or the executive or the league behind your cheque; it’s a lot harder to get the athletes behind it. I hope the rest of sports never really embrace that because I think their lack of embrace is why we’re doing so well. I think too many athletes think they’re making US$20 million a year because they’re worth it, as opposed to making US$20 million a year because somebody is willing to invest in their sport and their consumers and that stage of entertainment. If you don’t understand the latter, then I think the business is in trouble. My job is to make sure that we, both staff and athletes, never forget that.”

It is that thought process that underpins just about every decision Whan makes. For him, running the LPGA is, first and foremost, about creating opportunities – opportunities not only for the world’s best players to earn a good living and showcase their talent on the biggest platform possible, but also for kids in the US and around the world to swing their first club and for would-be tournament sponsors to find value in the game. Anything that fails to satisfy that overarching imperative is of little importance to Whan, not least when it relates to politics.

This July, the US Women’s Open, the richest event in women’s golf with a prize purse of US$5 million, will be staged at Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey, one of many courses owned by US president Donald Trump, whose disparaging comments towards women, non-US citizens and other groups has prompted widespread calls to move or boycott the tournament and raised the prospect of anti-Trump protests when the event eventually gets underway.

So Yeon Ryu, who won the ANA Inspiration golf tournament, is one of a number of Asian golf stars whose success prompted Whan to significantly increase in the LPGA Tour’s footprint across the continent

Though the decision to play this summer’s tournament at a Trump property was made by the United States Golf Association (USGA) and not the LPGA, Whan’s stance has been consistent ever since he first started fielding questions on the matter many months ago. For him, the prospect of the Open – or any women’s golf tournament, for that matter – serving as a platform for political expression is “both problematic and embarrassing”, one which only detracts from his overriding responsibility of ensuring the world’s best players have “an opportunity to play on the biggest stage for the biggest amount of money and in front of the biggest TV audience as I can”.

“I’m already disappointed that nobody is talking about the best players in the world,” he says when asked whether he feels any trepidation ahead of July’s event. “There’ll be more media there than ever before and it’s a shame that most of them won’t be there to cover the golf tournament and these great women. That’s too bad. It is what it is.”

He continues: “I’ve long learned, especially in this current US political environment, there is no right answer one way or the other. You frustrate one half of the population no matter what position you take, so we’re going to just to take the position of focusing on golf and if people have a problem with that, that’s their choice. They’ve got a channel selector on their TV and they don’t have to buy a ticket, but if you think that’s hurting somebody other than the best female golfers on the planet, I think you’re sadly misconstrued.

“I mean, I’ve got political views just like anybody else but I decided at the very beginning that my political views aren’t going to impact the opportunities of my members. That doesn’t mean that every member is going to agree with that. Some like that and some don’t like that. But I can promise you it will be a consistent position from my perspective because that’s my job. I was hired to give them opportunities; I wasn’t hired to win an election.”

Whan takes a similar stance when it comes to political matters within the game of golf. For some time, talk of creating a global, unified circuit under a single umbrella body has permeated the sport. When Finchem stepped down from the PGA Tour at the end of last year, for example, he left advocating for the formation of a new organisation to govern the professional game on a global basis. His suggestion was made in part to boost the commercial development of golf and in part to address what he saw as an “uneven” professional playing field. Some, however, took it as a power play; an opportunistic attempt to further the PGA Tour brand overseas at a time when the European Tour and the Asian Tour – the two other leading circuits in men’s golf – were in talks themselves over a potential merger.

There are certainly areas the PGA Tour know better, deliver better, understand better, and if I can figure out a way to partner with them in some of those areas, I believe women’s golf benefits.

Whatever the motives behind Finchem’s grand vision, logistically and politically it would be a complex one to implement. Consolidation of the sport under a unified body would require major, game-altering sacrifices from all sides, a process that would only be exacerbated with each tour out to protect and preserve its own interests. There are also significant questions surrounding the impact such a proposal would have upon the women’s game, particularly since it has rarely been mentioned – at least not publicly – as part of the discussion. It is for that reason that Whan is not taken by the proposal just yet.

“It certainly makes for a nice Powerpoint presentation and an easy work chart,” he says. “But I would tell you the thing that makes the LPGA survive – and, quite frankly, makes women’s golf survive – is every day I’ve got 150 people who wake up and all they think about is women’s golf. It’s not the third priority, it’s not the fourth priority, it’s not filling a window. And really, to sell it you’ve got to be focused on it. For me, unless somebody showed me an organisation that said, ‘Yes, this would really be all-in on women’s golf,’ I like where we sit today.”

But that is not to say Whan doesn’t see closer collaboration between golf’s various stakeholders as the future of the game. He himself has been something of a unifying force within the sport, not least since he replaced Finchem as chair of the World Golf Foundation, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to enhance the growth of golf worldwide, in January. In 2014, Whan and the LPGA teamed up with the PGA of America and KPMG to create the Women’s PGA Championship, a revamped major tournament that would offer a prize purse of US$3.5 million, among the highest in women’s golf. The LPGA also continues to work closely with the USGA to run Girls Golf, a national junior programme for girls aged six to 17, while in March 2016 the tour entered into a strategic alliance with the men’s PGA Tour.

The latter alliance was essentially a formalisation of a longstanding cooperative relationship, but it nevertheless signalled the start of a new chapter in the commercial development of the women’s game. “When Jay and Tim and I started talking a couple of years ago, it wasn’t as creative as people suggest,” Whan reflects. “It was just next on the list, right. I mean, if I’m going to take the women’s game to the next level, I’ve got to find people bigger and stronger than me who are willing to boost us up on their shoulders on occasion. There are certainly areas the PGA Tour know better, deliver better, understand better, and if I can figure out a way to partner with them in some of those areas, I believe women’s golf benefits.”

The LPGA and the PGA Tour now work together across a number of areas such as schedule coordination, joint marketing programmes, and digital media. As part of the alliance, the PGA Tour will sell the LPGA’s domestic media rights for the first time when they go out to market in 2019, but it is the prospect of the creation of combined men’s and women’s events that has been most eagerly anticipated within the wider industry.

So (centre) jumps into Poppie’s pond, along with her support team, following her play-off victory over Thompson at the ANA Inspiration

“What’s exciting about that idea,” says Whan, “is whether you’re taking to players, whether you’re talking to media, whether you’re taking to fans, everybody finds that intriguing and everybody says, ‘When and where?’ I think when you find things that, across the board, people just say, ‘When and where?’, you know you’re on to something.”

Though nothing is yet set in stone, Whan says plans are being finalised to stage a joint limited-field tournament in Hawaii at the start of the calendar year. The event, which could be held as soon as 2018, would likely see tournament winners from the previous season on both tours come together in an expansion of the PGA Tour’s existing Tournament of Champions, with official status ensuring both sets of players are competing for ranking points and prize money.

“It would be an official event for them, and an official event for us,” he explains. “You’d have both men and women playing the same course at same time on the same days with the same pin placements, but having two different leaderboards because both are actually trying to achieve official results.

“We’re definitely experimenting with and are pursuing some team ideas and those will be fun and good for TV. But the reality is those won’t be official money – I mean, it’s hard to qualify official money for Brittany Lincicome because if she was playing with Bubba Watson, it would be difficult for either tour to say that officially moves you on the official money list. Bottom line, both of our tours show up for strong, official tour events, so let’s start from the very beginning.”

Whan adds that other “fun, creative TV formats” are also in the works, in line with the golf industry’s ongoing quest to innovate and evolve to ever-changing consumer habits and a shifting media landscape. On both sides of the Atlantic, new tournament formats have been concocted ostensibly to speed up the pace of play and appeal to a new audience – events like April’s team-based Zurich Classic of New Orleans, for example, or the upcoming GolfSixes, a new six-hole European Tour production that will feature on-course music, celebrity interviewers and shot clocks. Golf’s governing bodies are also in the process of simplifying the rules of the game, while the emergence of entertainment products like Topgolf has brought a more social, youth-focused dimension to the sport.

That golf-wide willingness to adapt and try new things augurs well for the future of the game, says Whan. He sees the sport becoming “more borderless” in future, with more and more players hailing from non-traditional or unheralded golfing nations. He also sees digital and social media as opportunities to strengthen connections within the global community of golfers. Above all, though, he is optimistic that women and ethnic minorities are only going to play a bigger role as the sport continues to evolve.

“If you look at a lot of both established and burgeoning countries in the game, the face of the junior golfer is different than the face of the adult golfer,” he says. “For 100 years, the future of this game – players under the age of 18 – have looked exactly like their parents: white, male, wealthy. I mean, that’s pretty much what golf looked like for 100 years. It doesn’t look like that today.

“You take an established market like the US, where a third of the golfers under the age of 18 are women, a third of the golfers are non-Caucasian, half of them are under the age of 12, so you’re talking about people learning this game at a really young age and making it a lifestyle. Then you start talking about other developing countries – Thailand and Malaysia and the rest. The other half of the population is going to be joining this game over the next 50 years and it’s really going to create some incredible opportunities for expansion worldwide.”

This feature originally appeared in issue 94 of SportsPro magazine. Click here to subscribe.