Whan answers ‘a calling’ to lead LPGA
• As first reported by Golfweek: LPGA to introduce Whan as commissioner •
NEW YORK – He has forged a business career marketing golf clubs, toothpaste and hockey skates. No one is sure if that qualifies him for his next challenge – selling the LPGA tour to corporate America and renewed hope to its membership – but Michael Whan officially has the job.
With great enthusiasm, he’s quick to add.
“This is a personal passion,” Whan said at a news conference at Madison Square Garden, where the president and chief executive officer of Mission Itech Hockey was introduced as the eighth commissioner in the 60-year history of the LPGA.
“It’s a calling. I’ll take it that seriously.”
In possession of the golf background that many thought was mandatory for the next commissioner – he worked in the golf division of Wilson Sporting Goods in the early 1990s, then served as executive vice-president and general manager of TaylorMade’s North American region for five years – Whan was selected by a search committee organized in July in the wake of Carolyn Bivens’ resignation under pressure.
Helen Alfredsson, one of two players (the other being Juli Inkster) to serve on a four-person search committee, said it was “a tough (process), but it’s really exciting to come to the right decision.”
Asked what makes Whan the right choice, Alfredsson offered a sentiment that was echoed throughout the half-hour news conference. “Just listen to him; he’s passionate,” said the veteran player, who was reacquainted with Whan during the interview process.
Alfredsson signed a contract with TaylorMade under Whan’s watch, so she is familiar with his style.
“He’s not afraid,’’ she said. “He’s totally aware of the whole situation. There isn’t going to be any unknown.”
The Swede was referring to the landscape into which Whan enters: Having had 33 tournaments totaling $60.3 million in purses in 2008, the LPGA in 2009 was down to 28 and $47.6 million. Next year, 18 tournaments are under contract, with a target of 25.
Yes, the economic climate has a lot to do with that, but what contributed greatly to the woes of 2009 was widespread player unrest with then-commissioner Carolyn Bivens. As longstanding tournaments in Corning, N.Y., and Kingsmill, Va., chose not to renew contracts and a popular event at Kapalua in Hawaii went away, players grew disenchanted with Bivens’ aggressive business model that seemingly alienated corporate people.
One of Whan’s first jobs, Alfredsson said, is to reassure players that the LPGA is headed in the right direction.
“To get the players’ confidence (is important),” Alfredsson said, “because that is something that’s been on the low side.”
Acknowledging the economic climate that has contributed to cracks in the LPGA foundation – “issues or challenges,” Whan said – but doesn’t look at those as bad words. Instead, “what they represent is tremendous upside potential. I can’t wait to get started.”
Technically, that won’t be until Jan. 4, because the LPGA’s Board of Directors voted to keep acting commissioner Marty Evans in her role and help steer the transition. Speaking on a conference call from Seoul, South Korea, where she is attending this week’s LPGA tournament, Evans voiced her support of Whan.
“I think people dreamed of a commissioner that would come with some significant sports background in addition to passion,” Evans said.
Whan, a graduate of Miami University in Ohio, comes most recently from a hockey background, with Mission Itech being a dominant player in equipment for that sport. But he leaves no doubt that golf is where his sports roots rest. His father started him in the game young, his mother later in her life picked up golf, and the family operated a golf shop called Double Eagle in the Hyde Park section of Cincinnati.
Whan played at Coldstream and Royal Oak country clubs in Cincinnati.
“I was that crazy high-school kid cutting greens at 5:30 in the morning so he could play free golf in the afternoon,” Whan said. “I was the guy who decided to make golf a career move, back in my early 30s.”
When he joined TaylorMade, it was a company mostly known “for its metal woods,” but Whan said he was proud at whatever role he had toward changing that. TaylorMade grew into a major player in the golf-equipment industry.
Dick Rugge, senior technical director for the U.S. Golf Association, worked with Whan at TaylorMade and supports the LPGA's hire.
“These are difficult times, but he will bring a lot of skills to the job,” Rugge said. “He is a solid marketing guy,” adding that Whan is "full of energy” and "has plenty of ideas.”
If Whan used a business philosophy to guide him, it was similar to what he used at Procter & Gamble years earlier and Mission Itech recently.
“I’m a guy who builds brands,” said Whan, when asked how a guy with golf, toothpaste, and hockey skates for a background will lead the LPGA. “I believe in brands.”
He has a business model, but he said he jokes to people that “I have an idea of 50 percent of it – I just don’t know which 50 percent is wrong.”
Whan shrugged and said that instead of “reassuring players, I think I need to listen to them,” which he insists is at the heart of his business mind.
“Large ears and pretty small mouth,” he said. “I believe in ‘listen, learn and lead,’ and you do it in that order.”
Standing nearby as Whan spoke, after having sat with him at the news conference, Leslie Greis, an independent director with the LPGA and chairman of the search committee, nodded in approval.
“He’s motivated by the challenges,” said Greis, who wouldn’t disclose the number of candidates beyond “a lot.”
It was a day to celebrate, but Greis, who runs an investment company in Boston, likened the mood to her line of work. “After a long and successful capital campaign and a lot of fundraising,” she said, “everyone wants to celebrate, but someone has to remind them, ‘Hey, guys, now we have to spend (the money) wisely.”
In other words, “there’s work to be done,” Greis said.
Whan agreed. He was never mentioned as a candidate, so his naming caught a lot of observers by surprise.
“The first time we ever heard his name was when he was announced as commissioner,” said Tom Maletis, president of Tournament Golf Foundation. Maletis, who runs the Safeway Classic, is in San Diego at a Tournament Owners Association meeting and found out about the LPGA’s decision Tuesday night.
Whan plans to return to California to spend time with wife Meg and their three children (Austin, 15; Wesley, 13; and Connor, 12). He insists he will be ready.
“I want to be a leader (of the LPGA),” he said. “And for a long time – not just for the short term.”
– James Achenbach and Beth Ann Baldry contributed