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Daunting challenges ahead for LPGA commissioner Whan

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The Scots know how to endure the trials and tribulations the ancient game presents.

They love the game they invented so much they eagerly play through the frigid torment their rugged weather often brings.

So maybe Michael P. Whan was born for the daunting challenges that lie ahead as the LPGA’s new commissioner.

Whan has Scottish blood coursing through his veins. That’s among the many things we learned today about the man whose introduction Wednesday as the association’s eighth commissioner caught so many golf observers by surprise. He’s somewhat of a mystery man to most golf fans though he has strong ties to the game beyond his heritage. Whan’s Scottish ancestors actually went by the name MacWhan.

“We lost the Mac somewhere along the line,” Whan, 44, said in his introductory news conference at Madison Square Garden .

We’ve also learned something odd about the LPGA’s newest leader. He was unemployed when the LPGA finalized his hiring this week. That sounds a lot worse than it is. The fact that he has spent most of the past year working as a consultant is a testament to the work he did in his last position as the chief executive officer at Mission Itech Hockey, where he transformed the smallish hockey equipment company into a property so valued it became the darling of larger companies. Mission Itech Hockey has been bought and sold twice in the last year.

LPGA COMMISSIONERS

Ray Volpe (July 1975 – March 1982)

John Laupheimer (April 1982 – Nov. 1988)

Bill Blue (Dec. 1988 – Sept. 1990)

Charile Mechem (Nov. 1990 – Dec. 1995)

Jim Ritts (Jan. 1996 – March 1999)

Ty Votaw (March 1999 – Sept. 2005)

Carolyn Bivens (Sept. 2005 – July 2009)

Marty Evans* (July 2009 – Jan. 2010)

Michael Whan (Jan. 2010 – ?)

(*Acting commissioner)

“I think Mike’s a really good selection as LPGA commissioner,” said Mark King, chief executive officer of TaylorMade Golf. “The reasons are that he’s very, very smart. He’s very aggressive, and he’s a world-class marketer.”

King should know. Whan worked under him at TaylorMade in the late ‘90s. Whan worked his way up to executive vice president/general manager of TaylorMade North America, but King said Whan impressed him long before he even arrived at TaylorMade. Whan grew up in Chicago, but his family moved to Cincinnati before his freshman year of high school. After graduating from Miami of Ohio, he went to work for Procter & Gamble, where he was a rising star in the brand and marketing departments.

“Mike ran the company’s Crest brand at a young age,” King said. “That’s a diamond brand. If you run Procter & Gamble’s Crest brand, you are a superstar.

“When Mike came here, I saw his passion and desire to succeed. I’m a big fan of his. I think he’ll do really well. He’s a forward thinker. He will look at the model the LPGA has today, and he’ll look at how it will be most relevant to sponsors. He’s got a fertile and creative marketing mind. He’ll find a way sponsors can be benefited most by the LPGA. I don’t think he’ll be a salesman. He’ll approach them as a partner in looking at how they can build their brands together. I think that’s what it will take.”

Whan left Procter & Gamble to get into the golf business, joining Wilson Sporting Goods as a vice president and general manger of its golf ball and glove business while also managing the marketing department and overseeing research and development. He went to TaylorMade from there. Whan’s future with the LPGA, however, may have been sealed outside the golf business.

Whan’s success at Mission Itech Hockey from 2002 through late last year serves as almost a model for what LPGA officials would like him to do with their tour.

Mission Hockey was a small hockey equipment company in California specializing in roller and ice hockey when Whan took over as CEO. He merged it with Itech, a Canadian hockey equipment company.

“Mission Hockey was a startup company that blew up with the explosion of roller hockey,” said Sean Riley, the brand manager at Mission Itech Hockey. “It had legs, great products, but it was a mess when Mike Whan got here. He was able to step in after multiple failures and turn it into a profitable business. He got the spending under control and put the structure in place to give it the ability to succeed.

“We were a very innovative company, pushing technology. We had some edgy marketing and tried some outlandish things.”

Riley said Whan’s gift is his ability to bring talent together, to get different entities to share a common goal and vision.

“He’s no micromanager,” Riley said. “He saw what we wanted to do, harnessed that and turned us loose. He was always looking at what’s next and was never one to sit on his hands. He was always looking at how to build the empire.”

King said LPGA staff can expect Whan to lead with a high-energy style.

“Mike defines high energy,” King said. “I’ve never met anybody who has more energy than Mike.”

If Whan has a grand plan, he isn’t sharing it yet. In fact, he says he will be doing a lot of studying before he assumes his new duties on Jan. 4.

“I have a personal philosophy about leadership that maybe not everybody understands,” Whan said. “ I believe in listen, learn and lead, and you do it in that order. You've got to listen so that you can learn, and once you've listened and learned, you're prepared to lead. So I tend to believe that my first few months in the position are going to be with pretty large ears and pretty small mouth because I've got more to learn than I've got to offer and beyond, but I can't wait to jump in.”

Whan is jumping in right away. He left his introductory news conference in New York Wednesday to fly to San Diego, where he will attend the LPGA’s Tournament Owners Association meetings.

There is lots of work to do there with the LPGA schedule expected to feature less than 25 tournaments next year, down from 34 last year.

“I've never been one that looks at words like issues or challenges or problems as bad words,” Whan said. “What they represent is tremendous upside potential. I can't wait to get started, not just because of the upside potential, not because of the base we've already built, but where we can really take the LPGA in the years to come.”

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