When Mike Whan was hired as the LPGA commissioner at the end of 2009, nobody knew who he was.
There was a mad scramble among media to learn more about the former CEO of Mission Itech Hockey. Even LPGA pros had no clue who this guy was.
Today, three years after Whan’s hire, Wikipedia still has no entry devoted to him.
That’s just fine with Whan, 47, because he prefers making his impact behind the scenes, and he’s quietly making a profound impact in the women’s game.
After taking over in tough economic times, Whan has rescued a sinking ship.
Whan doesn’t like hearing that, and he doesn’t believe it’s an accurate description of the state of the tour when he took over, but there were serious doubts about the future of the LPGA with so many title sponsors abandoning ship as he was taking the rudder.
In ’08, there were 34 official LPGA events, 24 of them domestic events.
By 2011, there were just 23 total official events left.
You have to know those numbers to appreciate Tuesday’s release of the LPGA’s 2013 schedule.
There will be 28 events this year. While that is just one more than a year ago, it’s six more check-cashing events than two years ago. It’s $8.5 million more in total prize money over 2011. And Whan might not be done this year. He hopes to be able to announce a 29th event in the coming month, a West Coast event to be played in late September.
Momentum isn’t a dirty word in the LPGA ranks anymore.
Whan’s turning that around.
“There was definitely a negative trend and that was concerning for a lot of us,” said Rob Neal, chair of the LPGA Tournament Owners Association Board and executive director of the Tournament Golf Foundation. “Mike’s job, No. 1, was to stop the negative trend and create a solid foundation to turn things around and create some positive momentum.”
Basically, Whan has turned around a crisis of confidence in LPGA leadership.
Whan’s predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, didn’t have an easy task as the LPGA’s first female commissioner. A sour economy, and her heavy-handed tactics with tournament owners, conspired to unhinge the organization. A player revolt forced her departure and created serious questions about the tour’s future.
If so many longtime LPGA partners no longer had confidence in the tour’s leadership, why would prospective new sponsors have any?
That was the challenge Whan faced.
“We needed a new face and a new kind of energy to build the confidence in everybody at the LPGA and in the LPGA family,” Neal said. “I think Mike’s brought that.”
Whan’s formula is as basic as creating a genuine partnership with tournament owners.
“He creates this feeling that the LPGA and the tournaments are in a joint effort, that it isn’t 'us' and 'them,' but it’s a team,” said Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, the LPGA president. “That whole change in atmosphere and thinking has really grown the parties together.”
Whan believes his stars know how to sell even better than he does.
“I always felt like the media and others thought we were more shaky than we were because I knew we had a good product,” Whan said. “You can’t sell a bad product, and you can’t fix a bad product. The bottom line is these ladies get it. They are the best sales engine in this business.
“You can’t say quality and momentum aren’t continuing this year, and nobody can take credit for that but the players. My staff and I have been smart enough to get out of their way and let them do what they do so well. We turn what they do into more business, but they are the best sales engine in this business.”
Former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem is a big fan of Whan’s work ethic.
“Mike’s doing an extraordinary job, and he’s doing it the old-fashioned way,” Mechem said. “He’s just working at it. It’s the only way to do it.”
Whan will tell you the tour’s growing schedule will continue to be pinned to his stars.
Stacy Lewis’ rise in 2012 as the LPGA’s Player of the Year helped the tour move back into the Dallas area with the new North Texas LPGA Shootout this year. She’s a Texan and proud of it. She had an endorsement deal with Pure Silk, which helped pave the way to that company becoming title sponsor of the new event in the Bahamas this year.
The LPGA is in Taiwan because of Yani Tseng’s popularity and in China because of Shanshan Feng’s breakthrough last year. The tour’s still in Mexico because of Lorena Ochoa. It’s in South Korea and Japan because of all the stars that have come out of those countries.
Still, Whan’s skill as a facilitator can’t be underestimated. He’s rebuilding trust that the LPGA is a good partner.
“Three years ago, we were a tour of individual tournaments that were, maybe not scraping, but working very hard in a tough economy to stay afloat,” said Gail Graham, president of the Tournament Owners Association. “Now, it feels more like we’re part of the team, part of the association. That’s really buoyed the confidence of tournaments.”
The rebuilt trust is taking the LPGA closer to Whan’s goals.
Whan wants 30 to 32 LPGA events. He believes that’s a solid, optimum schedule.
“I’m trying to build schedules that match the way top players play anyway,” Whan said. “They play three weeks, then take a week off, or they play four weeks, then take a week off. Typically, they take a week off after a major, and they take a week off after playing Asia. If I build a schedule built around the way they want to play anyway, I get fresher players. I get happier sponsors. I get better TV. So, it’s selfish, but at the same time, it’s selfish for everybody. Everybody wins in terms of better fields, better TV, better value for my business partners.”
Whan’s work won’t be done when he does reach 30 events.
“After we get to 30-32, my focus will shift to growing purses and growing TV coverage, to make sure our 32 events are even more impactful and important, rather than just to keep adding weeks to the schedule,” Whan said.
The 2013 schedule will feature more than 300 hours of television coverage.
“We will have more days of coverage, more hours of coverage and more live coverage than we’ve ever seen,” Whan said.
Someday, that might get Whan his own Wikipedia page.