A week or so ago I had a half hour to talk with Mike Whan, commissioner of the LPGA for a feature I was working on. Whan, a former golf equipment executive at TaylorMade, was brought on board the LPGA in 2009 after the sudden firing of former commissioner Carolyn Bivens at a time when sponsors were fleeing women’s golf and tournaments were disappearing.
The LPGA has 25 events now — down about 10 from its peak — but Whan is full of confidence that the situation is stabilized. One of those events is the CN Canadian Women’s Open, which Whan said was akin to a major — only without the designation. It was also announced last week that Michelle Wie, among others, would be playing in Montreal at this year’s CN Canadian Women’s Open.
Since I had a half-hour of quotes for a small feature, so I’ve picked some of those I didn’t use and included them here:
RT: I see your role like that of an executive who comes in to fix a broken company.
Whan: I think the analogy is right – I’m like a CEO who comes in to turn this around, and I’ve done a lot of those in my business career. But the LPGA is a not-for-profit and unlike being a CEO of a publicly traded company where earnings and EBITDA is the focus, that’s not true at the LPGA. Every dollar we make has to get reinvested back into member services. I tell people on my staff that when they tell me how much money we made on a deal, I always ask whether we should have invested more of that into the business. That’s what the LPGA is all about. It is a non-profit that is designed to inspire women through the game of golf.
RT: There’s been a lot made about restrictions on teenagers in the LPGA – from Michelle Wie to Lexi Thompson. Lorie Kane told me she wouldn’t recommend that young players rush to get on the LPGA. How do you see it?
Whan: There’s a current rush to turn pro and players like Lorie recognize it is a long road. But few golfers have their best years between the ages of 17 and 21. You are going to have your best years as a golfer in your early 30s, so it is great if you’re fantastic early, but there’s no rush. Your career isn’t going to end at 18. It is a journey, not a sprint and sometimes people recognize that the hard way.
Give me the list of players you think had their greatest years between the ages of 15 and 18. I’m sure when Tiger Woods was 15 people were saying he was ready. And maybe he was. But no one is going to look back at those years and say his best was when he was 15.
In other sports you might make the argument that your window to succeed is at an earlier age. Hard to say that in golf.
RT: How do you see your role in the LPGA evolving? Are you expecting a long tenure?
Whan: I never came into the LPGA with a 10 or 15-year plan. It isn’t how I envision ending my career. And that’s not because it isn’t a great job and that’s not because I don’t have a lot of passion for this. I think if you start thinking about being in the position for 10 years you start thinking too much about keeping the job. I don’t want to be that guy. I’m not afraid to make mistakes – and in this job every mistake is publicized. This is a business that needed change, in some case to the old ways and in some case in new ways.
I’ve said to players time and again that if I can’t take this to the stage where it needs to be in three or four years, maybe it is time for someone else to step in. And if I can, well maybe it is time for someone for a new vision to keep challenging the organization and take it to another level.
I’m the guy who comes in, rights the ship and fixes the value. But this one had some basics we needed to address, but there are a ton of alternative opportunities. And things are going to change a lot in four or five years and that excites me.
RT: There’s been a lot made of the LPGA being anonymous by virtue of having so many Asian players, specifically Koreans.
Whan: When I got to the tour, I got the impression the LPGA was almost not proud of the world-wide group we have.
You pretty quickly forget where they are from. They are 20-something women who are incredible overachievers that you really want to root for and are the best in their sport. It is neat that golf will be part of the Olympics in 2016 – it will really help the game get more global. But in the women’s side you don’t have to wait for 2016; in Montreal this year we’ll have 30 countries teeing it up. We’re going to bring the women’s Olympics – in a way – to Canada. We put on the world series each week – and it is truly the world series.