As the LPGA kicks off its domestic season this week in Carlsbad, Calif., make no mistake: LPGA commissioner Mike Whan has his work cut out for him.
While growing the tour’s anemic number of domestic events – 13 – has to be a priority, Whan recognizes the value of the LPGA’s international presence. He recalled roughly 15 years ago during his stint at TaylorMade Golf, he attended a conference at Pinehurst Resort. One of the main topics of discussion centered on how the golf industry could invite more women into the game.
“There was a concern that the female golf market was limited to Europe and America,” Whan said in a recent interview with Golfweek. “Fifteen years later, here I am back in golf, and you have all these burgeoning markets and I’m being asked what am I going to do about all these international players we have on the LPGA – like it’s a problem.
“What am I going to do?,” he asked incredulously. “I’m going to fan it, fan it, fan it. We’re becoming the most global sport in the world.”
Whan is approaching the task of growing the LPGA schedule, which is down to 26 events this season, with the right attitude. Instead of former commissioner Carolyn Bivens’ “my way or the highway” approach, Whan is preaching: “The boat’s big enough to let everybody in.”
In an effort to attract more corporate support, Whan said he has spent 80 percent of his time since officially beginning his job in January on sponsor and business partners. Mornings are spent communicating with companies on the east coast; afternoons with those on the west coast. He said he has reached out to all of the LPGA’s former sponsors and tournaments, and though he would like to win back their business, he’s not necessarily applying a full-court press.
“In some cases, I’m just trying to learn what we could and should do better,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side writing the check, so I understand and that’s why we’re going to spend more time with our business partners.”
Whan will be evaluating progress with what sounds like a new language, filled with acronymns – whether it’s PEP (Partner Evaluation Process) or ROO (Return on Objective).
“Not because I’m a testing freak, but how do we know if we’re getting better if we don’t keep score?” he explained.
That way he can leverage the Tour’s strengths and identify areas that require more attention and resources.
“If (our partners) think we’re weak, then we’re weak,” he said.
Whan smartly has created an advisory council that consists of former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem, former J.C. Penney CEO W.R. Howell and LPGA legends Annika Sorenstam and Nancy Lopez. He has called on his trusted inner circle frequently.
“You can write a book with all the stupid questions I’ve asked Nancy,” Whan said.
That’s a taste of his self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s equally evident that Whan’s energy is contagious.
Serving recently as a volunteer caddie at a Duramed Futures Tour event, Whan shared personal stories – such as his undying affection for the Chicago Cubs – in between shots and from green to tee.
“I’ve been a fan since before they had lights at Wrigley (Field),” he said. “As a kid, my friends and I played golf until 1:15 (p.m.), then no matter what hole we were on we walked into the clubhouse to watch the game.”
Being a loyal Cubs fan demands being a glass-half-full type of guy. That likely explains the origins of Whan’s optimism. I noticed that Whan always pulled a putter from Alvarez’s bag before she had hit her shot onto the green.
“Every time I missed a putt, he told me he loved the stroke. When I chunked a chip, he told me, ‘No worries, you’ll get it up and down,’ ” said Lili Alvarez, the Futures Tour player who benefited from Whan’s help.
That type of optimism – and belief in his Tour – may be just the Rx the LPGA needs now.
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Editor’s note: You can read more about Whan’s day caddying for Lili Alvarez – during the season-opening round of the Duramed Futures Tour event in Winter Haven, Fla. – in the March 26, 2010 issue of Golfweek.