Free thinker

By Randall MellJanuary 7, 2011, 8:40 pm

The RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup will be Mike Whan’s legacy.

The bold idea he unveiled Thursday is destined to define his run as LPGA commissioner.

How will this one-of-a-kind event ultimately be remembered? As good business or bad business? As altruistic or imperiled? As brilliant or loony?

They’re all on the table with Whan’s reign beginning its second season and the tour still fighting to rebuild itself.

Give the man credit, though, he’s got more than grand vision. He’s got guts.

Whan essentially stepped in front of his players in the middle of a tough year last season and asked them to annually commit to playing a full-field event for free. He asked them to do so to honor the tour’s founding pioneers and to help build a better future. He asked them to make a giant sacrifice when many of his rank-and-file players are struggling to meet expenses.

It is a giant ask given the bare-boned nature of the women’s tour today.

Imagine PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem asking his players to compete in a full-field official event for free. If Finchem’s membership didn’t think he bumped his head coming in to see them, they would have made sure he bumped his head on the way out. His pros give a lot to charity, but they’d never agree to that.

The LPGA Founders Cup will open the American start of this year’s schedule March 18-20 in Phoenix at the Wildfire Golf Club at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa. It’s a 54-hole event with a 132-player field and a unique purse. Really, it’s an imaginary purse. Though Founders Cup “winnings” will count toward the official money list, any “money” won will not go into player pockets. It will be donated to the LPGA Foundation, which funds the LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf Program.

Even the wisest of LPGA pros couldn’t help scratching their heads when they first heard Whan’s Founders Cup plan.

It’s gallant, it’s big-hearted, but in the strictest business sense, is it the right idea at the wrong time?

The LPGA will play one more event in 2011 than they did last year, but they’ll be playing it without pay.

“The first reaction is, `Whew, we only have nine or 10 domestic events and we’re going to play one of them for free?” Hall of Famer Juli Inkster said. “I’m not sure I have an opinion yet. I’m not sure I know how the whole thing’s going to work, what we’re trying to do, what the objective is. I have to find out more, but it seems like, if you have a sponsor, why wouldn’t you play for a purse? I’m just trying to figure it out.”

You can, after all, fund a charity and get paid.

Two-time major championship winner Cristie Kerr said she needs some time to digest the plan’s details before commenting.

Obviously, the event’s success depends on the support of the elite players who drive interest. While Whan doesn’t know how many top-10 players will commit, he says he isn’t worried. He feels overwhelming support from players and is confident it will feature a strong field.

“I would say most players, 98 percent of the players, are for this,” three-time LPGA winner Brittany Lincicome said. “It was sort of a crazy concept. At first, we looked at each other like, `OK, this is different.’ But we know our commissioner is dedicated to making the tour better. I’ll be there. I’m excited about it.”

Count two-time LPGA winner Christina Kim in Whan’s court.

“I can’t speak on behalf of all players, but I think it’s a progressive idea, a noble idea,” Kim said. “It gets us back to our roots and reminds everyone what we’re about.”

Whan said he came up with the idea listening to Hall of Famer Louise Suggs and other LPGA founders talk about what they sacrificed to build the tour. Whan said Marilynn Smith, one of the tour’s 13 founders back in 1950, wept while thanking him for creating the event. Whan expects the size of the LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf foundation to double next year and triple the year after that.

“Players have heard me say many times, you only have one goal if you’re a part of the LPGA, that’s to leave the game better than you found it,” Whan said. “With this new tournament, it’s not only a chance to celebrate the women who put this tour on the map, it also gives us a huge chance to pay it forward.”

The Founders Cup encapsulates what Whan believes the tour should be all about, and it promises to test how what his membership believes about his business skill.

“I’m sure there were plenty members of my staff holding their breath as I presented my idea of the Founders Cup 2011,” Whan said. “At the time, we didn’t have a sponsor yet, but I took the players through the entire presentation and why I thought this was the right thing to do. At the end of the discussion, there was no discussion. Everyone stood up and applauded. There was a standing ovation. It was a strange and exciting reaction.”

Players are a predictable breed. They loved Carolyn Bivens when she was hired before Whan, but they ran her off when her business model failed in a sinking economy.

Whan’s Founders Cup may prove a great addition to the LPGA, but he better build more playing opportunities to go with it. Ideals aside, he shares the same bottom line that cost Bivens her job. Whan says he’s got at least three strong probable additions to next year’s schedule, possibly one this year.

The inaugural Founders Cup will be a success. It’s difficult to imagine top-10 tour pros having the nerve to pass playing. They’d risk being chastised as ingrates. It’s easy, however, to imagine players growing resentful of the commitment if they’re required to play this event annually without the tour growing around it.

When Bivens was hired, she believed the tour was undervaluing itself, that its business culture was soft and that sponsors took unfair advantage. She believed the tour was giving away too much of value. She might have failed in her heavy-handed approach, but if Whan’s model doesn’t work, old notions about the tour will be reinforced.

The Founders Cup encapsulates so much of who Whan is and what he’s come to believe about the LPGA’s mission as both a business and an association.

“Mike seems to have a plan for this,” Inkster said. “He’s not one to fly off the handle with something. He really thinks things through.

“I like what Mike’s doing overall. He’s building a solid foundation. Sponsors trust him, the media trusts him, the outside world trusts him. I think he’s got a lot of positive karma. Players aren’t complaining about him, they’re totally behind him.”

They’re behind a crazy idea to play for free. Whether they remember Whan kindly for it won’t depend on the Founders Cup as much as what comes after it.

Getty Images

What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

Getty Images

Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

Getty Images

Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

Getty Images

Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.