Free thinker

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The RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup will be Mike Whan’s legacy.

The bold idea he unveiled Thursday is destined to define his run as LPGA commissioner.

How will this one-of-a-kind event ultimately be remembered? As good business or bad business? As altruistic or imperiled? As brilliant or loony?

They’re all on the table with Whan’s reign beginning its second season and the tour still fighting to rebuild itself.

Give the man credit, though, he’s got more than grand vision. He’s got guts.

Whan essentially stepped in front of his players in the middle of a tough year last season and asked them to annually commit to playing a full-field event for free. He asked them to do so to honor the tour’s founding pioneers and to help build a better future. He asked them to make a giant sacrifice when many of his rank-and-file players are struggling to meet expenses.

It is a giant ask given the bare-boned nature of the women’s tour today.

Imagine PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem asking his players to compete in a full-field official event for free. If Finchem’s membership didn’t think he bumped his head coming in to see them, they would have made sure he bumped his head on the way out. His pros give a lot to charity, but they’d never agree to that.

The LPGA Founders Cup will open the American start of this year’s schedule March 18-20 in Phoenix at the Wildfire Golf Club at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa. It’s a 54-hole event with a 132-player field and a unique purse. Really, it’s an imaginary purse. Though Founders Cup “winnings” will count toward the official money list, any “money” won will not go into player pockets. It will be donated to the LPGA Foundation, which funds the LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf Program.

Even the wisest of LPGA pros couldn’t help scratching their heads when they first heard Whan’s Founders Cup plan.

It’s gallant, it’s big-hearted, but in the strictest business sense, is it the right idea at the wrong time?

The LPGA will play one more event in 2011 than they did last year, but they’ll be playing it without pay.

“The first reaction is, `Whew, we only have nine or 10 domestic events and we’re going to play one of them for free?” Hall of Famer Juli Inkster said. “I’m not sure I have an opinion yet. I’m not sure I know how the whole thing’s going to work, what we’re trying to do, what the objective is. I have to find out more, but it seems like, if you have a sponsor, why wouldn’t you play for a purse? I’m just trying to figure it out.”

You can, after all, fund a charity and get paid.

Two-time major championship winner Cristie Kerr said she needs some time to digest the plan’s details before commenting.

Obviously, the event’s success depends on the support of the elite players who drive interest. While Whan doesn’t know how many top-10 players will commit, he says he isn’t worried. He feels overwhelming support from players and is confident it will feature a strong field.

“I would say most players, 98 percent of the players, are for this,” three-time LPGA winner Brittany Lincicome said. “It was sort of a crazy concept. At first, we looked at each other like, `OK, this is different.’ But we know our commissioner is dedicated to making the tour better. I’ll be there. I’m excited about it.”

Count two-time LPGA winner Christina Kim in Whan’s court.

“I can’t speak on behalf of all players, but I think it’s a progressive idea, a noble idea,” Kim said. “It gets us back to our roots and reminds everyone what we’re about.”

Whan said he came up with the idea listening to Hall of Famer Louise Suggs and other LPGA founders talk about what they sacrificed to build the tour. Whan said Marilynn Smith, one of the tour’s 13 founders back in 1950, wept while thanking him for creating the event. Whan expects the size of the LPGA-USGA Girls’ Golf foundation to double next year and triple the year after that.

“Players have heard me say many times, you only have one goal if you’re a part of the LPGA, that’s to leave the game better than you found it,” Whan said. “With this new tournament, it’s not only a chance to celebrate the women who put this tour on the map, it also gives us a huge chance to pay it forward.”

The Founders Cup encapsulates what Whan believes the tour should be all about, and it promises to test how what his membership believes about his business skill.

“I’m sure there were plenty members of my staff holding their breath as I presented my idea of the Founders Cup 2011,” Whan said. “At the time, we didn’t have a sponsor yet, but I took the players through the entire presentation and why I thought this was the right thing to do. At the end of the discussion, there was no discussion. Everyone stood up and applauded. There was a standing ovation. It was a strange and exciting reaction.”

Players are a predictable breed. They loved Carolyn Bivens when she was hired before Whan, but they ran her off when her business model failed in a sinking economy.

Whan’s Founders Cup may prove a great addition to the LPGA, but he better build more playing opportunities to go with it. Ideals aside, he shares the same bottom line that cost Bivens her job. Whan says he’s got at least three strong probable additions to next year’s schedule, possibly one this year.

The inaugural Founders Cup will be a success. It’s difficult to imagine top-10 tour pros having the nerve to pass playing. They’d risk being chastised as ingrates. It’s easy, however, to imagine players growing resentful of the commitment if they’re required to play this event annually without the tour growing around it.

When Bivens was hired, she believed the tour was undervaluing itself, that its business culture was soft and that sponsors took unfair advantage. She believed the tour was giving away too much of value. She might have failed in her heavy-handed approach, but if Whan’s model doesn’t work, old notions about the tour will be reinforced.

The Founders Cup encapsulates so much of who Whan is and what he’s come to believe about the LPGA’s mission as both a business and an association.

“Mike seems to have a plan for this,” Inkster said. “He’s not one to fly off the handle with something. He really thinks things through.

“I like what Mike’s doing overall. He’s building a solid foundation. Sponsors trust him, the media trusts him, the outside world trusts him. I think he’s got a lot of positive karma. Players aren’t complaining about him, they’re totally behind him.”

They’re behind a crazy idea to play for free. Whether they remember Whan kindly for it won’t depend on the Founders Cup as much as what comes after it.