The USGA found the right LPGA commissioner to risk its grand experiment with this season.
For all the good feelings attached to Mike Whan’s release of the 2014 LPGA schedule, it’s noteworthy that the oldest event on the schedule comes with the riskiest proposition as the women get ready to begin their new season next week in the Bahamas.
The U.S. Women’s Open isn’t until June, but it promises to be the most scrutinized test of women’s skill in the 69-year history of the championship.
That’s because, for the first time, the U.S. Women’s Open (June 19-22) will be played the week after the U.S. Open (June 12-15), on the same golf course, at Pinehurst No. 2.
The back-to-back major championship tests offer an intriguing juxtaposition, a chance for the curious to compare how the men and women will fare against Pinehurst No. 2s formidable defenses.
With that intrigue, however, there’s daunting questions. Will the women ride the wave of attention the men will create the week before? Or will they crumple and crash beneath it?
With the men’s and women’s games so different, the event’s potentially fraught with logistical and political nightmares.
How fast will the USGA set up Pinehurst No. 2’s greens? Will officials push them to the brink for speed the way they normally do knowing the women will be coming in the following week? How will the width of fairways be configured? What about the rough? Will the men beat up landing areas and pin placements in a week of play and practice? How will the crosswalks for fans configure for the men vs. the women? What about the availability of hotel rooms for women coming in the weekend the men are finishing? What if the men need an 18-hole Monday playoff?
Whan’s team asked all these questions when his executive staff met with the USGA’s staff in a meeting in Orlando last month.
“Of course, 90 percent of our questions, the USGA already thought of,” Whan told GolfChannel.com.
While there’s big risk in this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, Whan believes the time is right for the women to do this. With Whan steering the LPGA back on to a solid foundation, with 33 events on the schedule this year, up from 23 just three years ago, the time is right to seize the attention this venue can bring his women.
“I think we’re finally in a spot where we can dream big,” Whan said. “A few years ago, we had to dream about recovery. We aren’t talking about recovery anymore. We’re talking about: `How high is up?’ That’s when it really gets fun.”
Now that the LPGA schedule is rebuilt, Whan said his attention turns to creating more interest in his tour, in growing the fan base.
“Doubling the fan base,” Whan said. “I think doubling it is more than realistic.”
That’s where Whan sees the upside in the big risks this U.S. Women’s Open offers. Back-to-back championships weren’t his idea. They were the USGA’s, but he likes the bravado in it.
“I say this to our players a lot, that you can’t dream big and be afraid of making mistakes,” Whan said. “They are not mutually exclusive.”
This is a commissioner who has proven he has the guts to push the envelope with a radical idea if he believes the upside is worth it. This is the guy who created a tournament to honor the LPGA’s founders and then asked his pros to play in it for free to fund its charity that first year. Whan risked a revolt asking players to make a great financial sacrifice to play in the inaugural RR Donnelley Founders Cup in 2011. It took some nerve with the tour’s playing opportunities down to an anemic 23 events. Whan’s risk, though, paid a large reward, with RR Donnelley so enamored with the concept that it stepped up the next year to fully fund the purse and charity.
This is a commissioner who infuriated traditionalists declaring the Evian Championship to be the tour’s fifth major last year.
This is a commissioner who took advantage of the LPGA’s Asian and international ties, even trumpeted them, when critics were pounding the tour for its domestic failures.
With all the handwringing taking place over this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, Whan has his concerns, too. But, he’s focusing on what’s possible.
“People talk about the concerns, the course setup, and I get that, but there’s an opportunity here,” Whan said Tuesday in his Golf Channel appearance on Morning Drive. “We get to follow a typical 6-point rating for the U.S. Open, where the whole world really engages in the men’s open.”
Whan is working with the USGA to give his players opportunities to be injected into coverage of the U.S. Open, to talk about how the U.S. Women’s Open will unfold a week later. He also has invited USGA Executive Director Mike Davis to host a forum with his LPGA pros in their first players meeting of the year at the Founders Cup in March.
“We’ve talked about how to make the most out of this unique opportunity, in terms of exposure for the women worldwide,” Whan said. “I think we have an opportunity to have more people watch the U.S. Women’s Open than have ever watched it before. I’m really looking forward to seeing how many people we can carry over into week two.”
Maybe this won’t work. Maybe U.S. Women’s Open week will begin with the LPGA feeling like players in one of those pairings stuck behind Tiger Woods in a PGA Tour event, where everyone’s leaving the tee box just as they’re arriving.
Though back-to-back championships weren’t Whan’s idea, he’s grateful the USGA is thinking a little bit like he does.
“I’ve said many times, I promise you I’ll be the commissioner with the most failures in my time, but it won’t be because I wasn’t willing to think bigger.” Whan said. “I’m trying to encourage a team and a player body that says, `Hey, let’s take some bigger swings so the upside for the next generation is bigger.’ So, whether it’s playing a fifth major, or playing a tournament without a purse, or playing back-to-back major championships, I can’t be sure how things will work out, but they’re done for all the right reasons.
“Some of them won’t work, but you’ve got to be able to take chances. You have to be willing to fail.”
It's the price of dreaming big.