NAPLES, Fla. – Early in Mike Whan’s tenure at the LPGA, three of the tour’s four majors were on shaky ground. Before he could rebuild a respectable schedule, Whan first had to make sure the pillars were in place. There were no guarantees.
Fast forward to 2018, when Whan played alongside Women’s British Open champ Georgia Hall in a pro-am one day after CME announced its plans to double the season-ending purse to $5 million. Though only a rookie, Hall was well aware she had come onto the scene at an opportune time.
“I’m really lucky to be playing right now,” she told him. Against these players, on these venues, for this kind of money.
The LPGA has not arrived by any means, not by a long shot, but Whan’s reflections at a recent State of the Tour address served as a reminder of the distance traveled.
When the LPGA announces its 2019 schedule later this week, Whan said official prize money will be up over $70 million, and CME’s $5 million purse, currently matched by the U.S. Women’s Open, won’t be the highest. There will even be a mixed event, with the LPGA and European Tours competing side by side for equal purses Feb. 7-10 at Australia’s Vic Open.
There will be room to improve, particularly in the flow and spacing of the events (the back-to-back majors for starters), but it’s night and day compared to what Whan inherited in 2010.
Back then Whan wasn’t thinking about the LPGA’s role in the game. Task No. 1 was to make sure the world’s best had places to play.
Whan used two key phrases to turn things around: “Embrace global” and “Role reversal.” The first one is obvious, though the goal back then was to deliver two North American events to every one staged overseas.
The second was born from a question asked by Herb Lotman, co-founder of the McDonald’s LPGA Championship. If Whan answered correctly, dinner was on Lotman.
The question: “Who’s your customer?”
“Well, it used to be you,” Whan began, “and if the dinner goes well, it’ll be you again.”
Whan earned his steak dinner that night along with the best wine in the house, and after half a dozen meetings with other recently departed sponsors, noticed a recurring theme.
“A lot of people had left us because they didn’t think we cared about their business,” Whan said. “They thought we cared about our business.”
Whan worked to make sure everyone from his staff to the LPGA membership understood the “why” for each sponsor. He put the check writers first, and it worked.
“The LPGA’s message had gotten more important than the sponsor’s message,” said Gail Graham, former president of the LPGA’s Tournament Owners Association, “and I think that’s what Mike recognized.”
Over the years the focus has grown from internal changes to the outside world. In the past 18 months in particular, Whan’s team has concentrated on the breadth of the organization, merging with the Executive Women’s Golf Association and establishing the LPGA Women’s Network. It’s no longer just about tours and teachers.
Going forward, Whan will rely heavily on Roberta Bowman, the LPGA’s new chief brand and communications officer, to shape how the tour positions itself to fit an ever-evolving cultural landscape.
“If I’m being perfectly honest,” said Whan, “we understand that companies view us differently in 2018 than maybe even we viewed ourselves. Because when we start thinking about all the companies that have joined us in the last three years, they really love the connection on women’s empowerment, diversity and inclusion, the uniqueness of our tour. Because there is no shape or size or background or country or language that defines the LPGA.
“What defines the LPGA is persistent success, leadership. Every one of those women out there runs their own little business. We’ve got moms and we’ve got kids that probably still live with their moms all winning on the LPGA.”
What the women of the LPGA represent, Whan says, is bigger than golf.
It’s high time they find a way to capitalize on it. Gwk