Risky Founders Cup pays dividends for Whan, LPGA

By Randall MellMarch 14, 2016, 2:24 pm

The difference between a crazy idea and a brilliant one can be as narrow as a tight rope.

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan knows this because he walked one creating the Founders Cup.

Five years ago, he teetered with his fate daring to take a radical idea to his membership, but today the Founders Cup is paying dividends even the commissioner couldn’t have seen coming. This unique event looks now like a catalyst that just might secure the future of his tour.

Back in 2011, Whan created the Founders Cup to honor pioneers of the women’s game and asked his pros to play the inaugural event for free. He asked them to donate the entire purse to LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf and other charities. He proposed this as a way to simultaneously pay back and pay forward, to honor the sacrifice tour founders made and also invest in the future of women’s golf.

Whan was bold enough to ask this just 18 months after a player mutiny got his predecessor fired.

Given the bare-boned nature of the women’s tour at the time he proposed the Founders Cup – with full-field, check-cashing opportunities troublingly scarce – Whan’s idea seemed oddly timed. He made some of his membership wonder if he ought to trade in his suit for a strait jacket.

“It was a big risk at the time,” said Jon Podany, Whan’s chief marketing officer and right hand man. “A new commissioner could have been laughed out of the building, coming in and asking players to play for no purse. At that time in our history, it was a pretty bold move.

“But Mike’s a visionary, an idea guy, an innovator. He has a lot of passion for getting behind new ideas, for trying to be different. I think those are among his strongest qualities. He’s willing to take risks, and he isn’t afraid to fail. He will make the bold move, and I think the organization is energized by that.”

Today, the Founders Cup shines as a beacon that illuminates the unique pathway Whan is using to revitalize the women’s tour, a creative route that has captured more than the attention of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. It also has gained Finchem’s admiration. And that’s a potential game changer for the future of women’s golf.

The LPGA heads back to Phoenix this week for the sixth rendition of the Founders Cup, a concept that deserves revisiting in the wake of news that the PGA Tour has struck a strategic alliance with the LPGA. The risk Whan took creating the Founders Cup is proving to be a catalyst to this formal new alliance with the men.

Finchem alluded to that a week ago at Trump Doral when he pointed out that the growth of girls’ golf is a factor in the alliance.

“The women’s game on the amateur side is perhaps the fastest-growing aspect of our sport, here domestically and certainly around the world and Asia, et cetera,” Finchem said. “The growth of women in the game is crucial, absolutely crucial, to our ability to grow the game.”

After the inaugural Founders Cup in 2011, title sponsors were so enamored with the women’s altruistic efforts, they began funding a real purse in addition to donations to LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf. The program has exploded since linking with the Founders Cup, growing from 5,000 participants in 2010 to 50,000 this year. Tournament proceeds have totaled more than $1 million for Girls’ Golf.

There’s another element of the Founders Cup that indirectly plays into the PGA Tour’s new partnership with the LPGA. The Korean TV network JTBC is title sponsor to the Phoenix event.

Last week, Finchem said he wanted to “applaud the LPGA” for its “very smart” decision to pursue global markets where women’s golf was more popular than men’s golf. He also said the PGA Tour wanted to collaborate with the LPGA in further “tapping into the global marketplace.”

Finchem has noticed how the LPGA has brought its international business success home, not only with JTBC, but with Japan’s All Nippon Airways becoming title sponsor of the LPGA’s first major championship of the year in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with Korean-based Kia continuing to sponsor an event in suburban San Diego and with Japan-based Lotte sponsoring the LPGA event in Hawaii. Plus, there is Taiwan’s Swinging Skirts Golf Foundation, which will be putting on its event in San Francisco for the third year, and Japan-based Yokohama Tires, which will be sponsoring the tour’s Alabama event for a third year.

A $1 million check is presented to LPGA-USGA Girls Golf in 2014 (Getty)

Whan believes a philosophy he adopted from the LPGA founders underlies his reconstruction of the women’s tour. It’s no coincidence the LPGA has grown from 23 events that inaugural year of the Founders Cup to 34 this year.

“If you walk through the LPGA offices today, in almost every hallway, you’ll see a sign that says, ‘Act like a founder,’” Whan said. “It’s amazing what the women who founded the tour left us. The Founders Cup was a chance for us to showcase the philosophies of these women, not just to the public but to ourselves.

“I really believe when I got here, the LPGA did not do a great job of remembering the philosophies that got us here. It doesn’t mean they weren’t still in us, because they were. We just weren’t stepping back to appreciate it. Now, at least once a year, we have an opportunity to come together and remember that, and to do what the founders did, which is to leave the next generation in better shape.”

Whan doesn’t take credit for the “Act Like a Founders” slogan, but he gets credit for making the servanthood theme central to the new LPGA culture. He also gets credit for risking his future on the radical Founders Cup idea.

“There wasn’t unanimous support for the original idea,” Podany said of some player pushback. “There were some issues, but we were able to get through them. I think the overall success and messaging of that first event was better than we could ever have expected.”

In that first year, a couple LPGA stars pushed back.

Paula Creamer and Cristie Kerr both said they supported the Founders Cup concept, but they didn’t like that Whan was proposing a $1.3 million mock purse when only $500,000 was going to be given to Girls’ Golf. If they were going to donate all their mock winnings, then they wanted an actual $1.3 million to go to charitable causes, including some of their own favorite charities.

“A couple months before that first tournament, I would have told you I thought I did a pretty good job of listening to players,” Whan said. “This made me realize that maybe the size of my ears weren’t what I thought. These players didn’t have a problem playing for no purse, or paying forward. Their message was that if we were going to do this, we should make sure we are paying a lot more forward. The players reaching out to question me, that pushed me forward.

“The other concern back then was that this was our first domestic event of that year. A couple veterans told me they liked the Founders Cup idea, but for some young players who had fought to finally make it to the LPGA, it was pretty tough to ask them to play their first event for a mock purse. All these things resonated. It forced me and my team to think bigger.”

Whan’s team turned the Founders Cup into an event with a purse and giant charity component. 

“To be honest, the original idea was designed to get players, media and fans to take notice,” Whan said. “We didn’t want to launch the Founders Cup as just another tournament. We wanted something philosophically that would make people go, ‘Wow, I’m not sure other sports would do that.’ I’m not sure other sports had founders like our 13. They didn’t make a lot of money and never really got rich, but they were proud of what they were building. We needed to make a similar statement, to really celebrate that.”

Whan jokes that he may get some big hits with his big swings, but they also often come with big misses. Still, he pushes his staff to think big, to take risks.

“Almost every big choice we’ve made has come with mistakes, some really noticeable, some not so much,” Whan said. “I think if you keep getting three out of five things right and you go back and fix the other two things, you tend to be OK. If you’re going to wait until you can go 5 for 5, you may never end up launching anything.”

Whan might have missed taking his first couple swings with the Founders Cup idea, but he ultimately hit a home run with it for women’s golf.

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials phoned Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial. 

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Kelly, Sauers co-lead in Hawaii; Monty, Couples in mix

By Associated PressJanuary 19, 2018, 3:52 am

KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - Fresh off a solid performance on Oahu, Jerry Kelly shot an 8-under 64 on the Big Island on Thursday to share the first-round lead at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship, the season opener on the PGA Tour Champions.

The 51-year-old Kelly, who tied for 14th at the PGA Tour's Sony Open last week in Honolulu, birdied five of his final seven holes to shoot 30 on the back nine at Hualalai. He won twice last season, his first on the over-50 tour.

Gene Sauers also shot 64, going bogey-free amid calm conditions. Thirty-two of the 44 players broke par in the limited-field event, which includes winners from last season, past champions of the event, major champions and Hall of Famers.

Rocco Mediate and Colin Montgomerie were one shot back, and Fred Couples, Kevin Sutherland and Kirk Triplett were another shot behind.

Bernhard Langer, defending the first of his seven 2017 titles, was in the middle of the pack after a 69.