PHOENIX – His first morning in the desert this week, Mike Whan took a jog across Wildfire Golf Club.
The LPGA commissioner stopped in front of the Founders Walk of Fame behind the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa.
He stopped to soak in the reverent atmosphere his tour has created this week with giant photographs of the 13 LPGA founders on banners hanging between the ninth and 18th greens at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup.
“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of remembering our past,” Whan said. “It’s not that it hasn’t been important, but we just don’t remember where we came from enough. I have no doubt this event will evolve into something bigger and better over the years.”
Whan begins his second year as commissioner knowing his membership has the same bold vision for the tour as a whole. He says this is the year the tour has to prove it can win back title sponsors.
Whan’s finding inspiration for that pursuit in the spirit of the tour’s founders.
The LPGA commissioner loves hearing how those women barnstormed the country building the tour 61 years ago.
Starting the tour was daunting work for the founders, not knowing if their sacrifices would pay off. There were just 14 tournaments in that first season in 1950, and it was hardly a glamorous life they created for themselves. In those early years, players did just about everything themselves. They typed up tournament press releases, set the daily pins, marked hazards, managed the pairings, oversaw scorekeeping and counted gate receipts before dividing their take.
That’s why the Founders Cup means so much to Whan.
This event’s his baby, and the question this week isn’t so much whether the Founders Cup will flourish, but whether the LPGA can flourish as a sports entity again.
Whan was handed a daunting challenge when he took over as commissioner.
He was handed a tour on the verge of collapse.
A tour that once boasted 40 events scrambled and scrapped to field 24 events.
The 2010 schedule felt as if it were held together with bandages.
After a year of healing, it feels like the bandages are off, or at least they should be.
The addition of RR Donnelley as this week's title sponsor and CME Group as title sponsor of the season-ending Titleholders championship were positive signs.
“We want to keep the momentum we’ve built the last few months,” Whan said. “The U.S. economy is bouncing back. We are not living in 2007 just yet, but we also don’t feel like we are living in 2009 either. Between CME Group and RR Donnelley becoming title sponsors, we’ve seen some big sponsors, that have played with the LPGA at a certain level in the past, playing on another level now. We have a couple more I feel like are close to doing the same thing.
“I feel the domestic momentum building. Internationally, we’ve had some pretty good action, and that will continue, but I think 2011 has to be the year we prove we can woo sponsors back.”
That makes this feel like an important, if not pivotal, year in the reconstruction of the LPGA.
“I don’t like the word pivotal,” said four-time LPGA winner Angela Stanford. “I think we’ve been through the tough time. In my opinion, it’s an important year, but it seems like every year’s important now. I really think we’ve been through the toughest times with the economy turning around.”
If that’s true, players want to see the tour rebounding with the economy.
They want to see more U.S. based events. That’s the mandate Whan’s feeling from his membership.
The LPGA had 24 U.S. events in 2008, but that’s down to 13.
Though we’re 11 weeks into the new year, the LPGA’s playing just its third tournament. There were six weeks off at the start of the year, and there’s just one LPGA event on the schedule in April, an important month for golf equipment manufacturers.
Whan is just as motivated as his players to see the number of events grow with new title sponsors joining the fold this year.
You can ask his wife.
“My wife said to me the other day, 'you’ve been in a bad mood the last couple weeks',” Whan said. “I told her it’s hard to watch the Golf Channel on Sunday and watch somebody else play. Nothing against the Golf Channel, but it’s hard to be in a good mood when I know we should be playing. I told her April is going to be worse, but I promise I’ll be better after April.”
Whan’s players want him to be in a great mood for his wife come next April.
“This is a very important year for us,” LPGA veteran Cristie Kerr said. “Mike’s had a year as commissioner under his belt to see how things run and to get introduced to all the partners we have. I think he’s done a good job his first year, but I think now is the time to build and go after new sponsorships, to foster new relationships, especially in the United States.
“Whatever it takes to get it done, we just need to try to keep building business.”
Hall of Famer Karrie Webb joined the LPGA’s Player Board this year and is eager to help steer the tour back into a growth mode.
“Last year was a very important year,” Webb said. “Mike did a really good job his first year. I think this year and maybe next year are years where he can get down to the business of selling us rather than having to stabilize the ship and trying to find a direction where we’re headed. Now, we sort of have that direction. Now, it’s about putting that plan into place. It’s all out on this year, but I think the next two years are important.”
Whan enters the year with the confidence of his players. There were serious issues about the original design of the Founders Cup format, with some top players questioning Whan's plan, but he seemed to have smoothed over most of that by integrating player suggestions. That helped ease the threat to the trust he built with his players and LPGA partners over his first year. Now, there’s even harder work, building that relationship with new partners.
“Mike deals with so many conflicting demands,” LPGA veteran Wendy Ward said. “I’ve seen four commissioners now in my time on the LPGA, and the thing I like about Mike is he’s a good a listener, a good communicator who shoots straight with people. He’s a good businessman, and with all of that comes passion and energy. He came in at a tough time, with some tough demands and he’s been able to please just about everybody.”
Whan will need all that energy and passion to build on what the founders created. He’s finding inspiration from them this week.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell