The U.S. economy was tanking and taking the LPGA Tour along for the slide when Mike Whan was introduced as the new commissioner during a news conference at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 4, 2010.
“I thought I was going to get a lot of questions like, ‘Who the heck is Mike Whan? Where did you come from? What makes you think you can do this job?’ ” Whan said by phone last month.
Instead, the burning question centered on what this longtime marketing executive with no experience in running a sport intended to do about those darn foreigners overtaking and, in some people’s estimation, dismantling the American-based tour.
“It was the first question,” Whan said. “And the way it was posed to me was, ‘What are you going to do about the international invasion?’ I remember the word, ‘invasion.’ ”
Whan’s answer that day became his tour’s two-word rallying cry for the next decade. And beyond.
“I was clueless and stupid. Probably still am,” Whan said. “But I just said two words: ‘Embrace it.’ ”
He noticed the sea of heads lowering to write down those two words.
“The follow-up was, ‘So you’re going to embrace more players coming from all over the world to play on the LPGA?’ ” Whan said.
The LPGA Tour has experienced quite the roller coaster ride from 2008, when Minnesota last played host to the world’s best women golfers, to this week, when an even deeper international field returns for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine National.
Back in 2008, when 19-year-old South Korean Inbee Park became the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen, the LPGA Tour and its dwindling field of sponsors were struggling with the early stages of the Great Recession and a spike in the dominance of Asian-born players sparked by South Korean Se Ri Pak taking the tour by storm as a rookie 10 years earlier.
Today, the LPGA Tour and its more globalized corporate partners have a 33-event season — up from a low of 23 in 2011 — that’s played in 11 countries with Asian swings in the spring and fall.
“We’re in a much better place now,” said Park, now 30, a seven-time major winner and LPGA Tour Hall of Famer. “The purses are rising. We get more TV time.
“But I think we still have a lot more potential and a long ways to go to keep up with the PGA Tour.”
Striving for TV coverage
While the Golf Channel now provides about 500 hours of LPGA Tour programming to 170 countries, Whan said his greatest regret in his first decade is the tour’s modest presence on American network television. While the PGA Tour has 39 weekends of network programming a year, the LPGA Tour has only seven, including NBC’s coverage from Hazeltine next Saturday and Sunday.
“Give me 39 weekends of network programming and I promise you that local golf fans will find Shanshan Feng and Stacy Lewis and Paula Creamer and the rest as interesting as any of their male counterparts,” Whan said. “We had one weekend when I first started. If we can double it to 14 or 15, I think we’re a different sport in the mind of the average consumer than we are today.
“My goal is to capture the attention of a network executive who is going to take a chance on us, not just because we’re a female sport and it’s the right thing to do, but because what we’re building here is the future.”
Whan compares the LPGA Tour’s model for success to that of the Olympics. But he also understands the model needs more American star power. Among the top 10 women’s players in the world, only No. 4 Lexi Thompson is American.
“But, also, if you ask me what I’m most proud of 10 years into this job, I’d say the program that we now have with the USGA called ‘Girls Golf,’ ” Whan said. “Back when we started, we introduced young women at a rate of about 4,500 a year. If you jump forward to 2019, that number will be almost 90,000 a year.”
According to the National Golf Foundation, 36% of today’s junior golfers are girls. That’s up from 15% in 2000.
“The fastest-growing segment in U.S. golf the last five, six years is girls under the age of 18,” Whan said. “We’ve never been able to say that in 100 years of compiling data.”
Wide world of golf
Of course, there’s a big leap from simply playing golf to reaching the LPGA Tour. The competition has never been deeper or more global.
“Things have changed a lot since 2008,” said Lewis, the 54-hole leader in her pro debut at Interlachen that year. “It’s much more diverse. Even more players from other countries. And it’s a lot deeper. Back then, there were maybe 20 or 30 players that legitimately had a chance to win. Now, you’ve probably got 50 or 60.”
Last year, the LPGA Tour had 26 different winners from 10 different countries. The five majors were won by five different players from five different countries: Sweden, Thailand, South Korea, the United States and England.
This year’s first two majors — the ANA Inspiration and the U.S. Women’s Open — were won by 23-year-old South Koreans Jin Young Ko and Jeongeun Lee. Lee’s first victory on the LPGA Tour earned her $1 million, the first seven-figure prize in U.S. Women’s Open history and nearly double the $585,000 Park won at Interlachen 11 years ago.
Lee also goes by Jeongeun Lee6 because she is the sixth player with the same name on the Korean LPGA Tour. Her victory came six days after prominent golf coach Hank Haney was suspended from his Sirius XM radio show for making a joke about how many LPGA Tour players have the surname Lee.
“Korean women are absolutely dominating the LPGA Tour,” Haney said afterward. “If you asked me again, my answer would be the same but worded more carefully.”
Whan’s predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, was concerned about the influx of Asian players. In fall 2008, she announced that all players with at least two years’ standing on the tour would need to demonstrate a “basic level of communication in English” or be suspended.
She said her rule would take effect after the 2009 season. Two weeks later, after a player revolt, Bivens rescinded the order.
A year later, her turbulent four-year reign ended when she was ousted after a meeting of star players resulted in a letter being sent to the LPGA Tour’s board urging Bivens’ resignation. Among the reasons given were that edict to learn English and a heavy-handed approach with sponsors that contributed to the deaths of seven tournaments in two years.
Into the fray stepped Whan, a longtime corporate executive and marketing expert with the likes of Procter & Gamble, Wilson Sports, TaylorMade and Mission-ITECH Hockey.
The relationship with corporate sponsors has been strengthened. In the case of the Women’s PGA Championship, partnering with KPMG in 2015 has contributed to the event being held at historic courses that have staged men’s majors. Hazeltine has hosted two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and the 2016 Ryder Cup.
Whan also encourages all players to learn other languages, not just English, as part of working for a global entity. And, no, he doesn’t threaten them.
“One of the first things we did was make language training available to them when they had the time to do it,” Whan said. “We didn’t pay for it. But we made sure your language teacher was with you wherever you were on tour. They traveled the world with us. I found the players wanted to learn and did so at a rate that I just couldn’t comprehend.
“Back in 2010, we probably had more interpreters on the driving range than we had coaches. Today, you might find an interpreter or two, but you’d have to work pretty hard to find them. The players have embraced it.”
The tour season starts in Florida and swings into Australia and Asia before returning to the U.S. It visits Europe, has a stop in Canada, swings back to Asia and ends in Florida.
“My father used to say you can’t go global from your desk,” Whan said. “Companies want to be global. They want their brand to be recognized around the world. They just don’t want to leave to do it. Playing an occasional event in London doesn’t make you global.
“Ten years ago, when you’re in the middle of going global, it’s kind of messy and you’re making mistakes and not everybody is on board. But it’s almost funny to think back and talk about those things now because they’re so far in the past and we’ve come so far.”