LPGA commissioner Whan making an impact

By Randall MellJanuary 15, 2013, 5:43 pm

When Mike Whan was hired as the LPGA commissioner at the end of 2009, nobody knew who he was.

There was a mad scramble among media to learn more about the former CEO of Mission Itech Hockey. Even LPGA pros had no clue who this guy was.

Today, three years after Whan’s hire, Wikipedia still has no entry devoted to him.

That’s just fine with Whan, 47, because he prefers making his impact behind the scenes, and he’s quietly making a profound impact in the women’s game.

After taking over in tough economic times, Whan has rescued a sinking ship.

Whan doesn’t like hearing that, and he doesn’t believe it’s an accurate description of the state of the tour when he took over, but there were serious doubts about the future of the LPGA with so many title sponsors abandoning ship as he was taking the rudder.

In ’08, there were 34 official LPGA events, 24 of them domestic events.

By 2011, there were just 23 total official events left.

You have to know those numbers to appreciate Tuesday’s release of the LPGA’s 2013 schedule.

There will be 28 events this year. While that is just one more than a year ago, it’s six more check-cashing events than two years ago. It’s $8.5 million more in total prize money over 2011. And Whan might not be done this year. He hopes to be able to announce a 29th event in the coming month, a West Coast event to be played in late September.

Momentum isn’t a dirty word in the LPGA ranks anymore.

Whan’s turning that around.

“There was definitely a negative trend and that was concerning for a lot of us,” said Rob Neal, chair of the LPGA Tournament Owners Association Board and executive director of the Tournament Golf Foundation. “Mike’s job, No. 1, was to stop the negative trend and create a solid foundation to turn things around and create some positive momentum.”

Basically, Whan has turned around a crisis of confidence in LPGA leadership.

Whan’s predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, didn’t have an easy task as the LPGA’s first female commissioner. A sour economy, and her heavy-handed tactics with tournament owners, conspired to unhinge the organization. A player revolt forced her departure and created serious questions about the tour’s future.

If so many longtime LPGA partners no longer had confidence in the tour’s leadership, why would prospective new sponsors have any?

That was the challenge Whan faced.

“We needed a new face and a new kind of energy to build the confidence in everybody at the LPGA and in the LPGA family,” Neal said. “I think Mike’s brought that.”

Whan’s formula is as basic as creating a genuine partnership with tournament owners.

“He creates this feeling that the LPGA and the tournaments are in a joint effort, that it isn’t 'us' and 'them,' but it’s a team,” said Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, the LPGA president. “That whole change in atmosphere and thinking has really grown the parties together.”

Whan believes his stars know how to sell even better than he does.

“I always felt like the media and others thought we were more shaky than we were because I knew we had a good product,” Whan said. “You can’t sell a bad product, and you can’t fix a bad product. The bottom line is these ladies get it. They are the best sales engine in this business.

“You can’t say quality and momentum aren’t continuing this year, and nobody can take credit for that but the players. My staff and I have been smart enough to get out of their way and let them do what they do so well. We turn what they do into more business, but they are the best sales engine in this business.”

Former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem is a big fan of Whan’s work ethic.

“Mike’s doing an extraordinary job, and he’s doing it the old-fashioned way,” Mechem said. “He’s just working at it. It’s the only way to do it.”

Whan will tell you the tour’s growing schedule will continue to be pinned to his stars.

Stacy Lewis’ rise in 2012  as the LPGA’s Player of the Year helped the tour move back into the Dallas area with the new North Texas LPGA Shootout this year. She’s a Texan and proud of it. She had an endorsement deal with Pure Silk, which helped pave the way to that company becoming title sponsor of the new event in the Bahamas this year.

The LPGA is in Taiwan because of Yani Tseng’s popularity and in China because of Shanshan Feng’s breakthrough last year. The tour’s still in Mexico because of Lorena Ochoa. It’s in South Korea and Japan because of all the stars that have come out of those countries.

Still, Whan’s skill as a facilitator can’t be underestimated. He’s rebuilding trust that the LPGA is a good partner.

“Three years ago, we were a tour of individual tournaments that were, maybe not scraping, but working very hard in a tough economy to stay afloat,” said Gail Graham, president of the Tournament Owners Association. “Now, it feels more like we’re part of the team, part of the association. That’s really buoyed the confidence of tournaments.”

The rebuilt trust is taking the LPGA closer to Whan’s goals.

Whan wants 30 to 32 LPGA events. He believes that’s a solid, optimum schedule.

“I’m trying to build schedules that match the way top players play anyway,” Whan said. “They play three weeks, then take a week off, or they play four weeks, then take a week off. Typically, they take a week off after a major, and they take a week off after playing Asia. If I build a schedule built around the way they want to play anyway, I get fresher players. I get happier sponsors. I get better TV. So, it’s selfish, but at the same time, it’s selfish for everybody. Everybody wins in terms of better fields, better TV, better value for my business partners.”

Whan’s work won’t be done when he does reach 30 events.

“After we get to 30-32, my focus will shift to growing purses and growing TV coverage, to make sure our 32 events are even more impactful and important, rather than just to keep adding weeks to the schedule,” Whan said.

The 2013 schedule will feature more than 300 hours of television coverage.

“We will have more days of coverage, more hours of coverage and more live coverage than we’ve ever seen,” Whan said.

Someday, that might get Whan his own Wikipedia page.

Getty Images

Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

Getty Images

Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

Getty Images

Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

Getty Images

Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”