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Whan changes LPGA philosophy, identity and future

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NAPLES, Fla. – Nobody is having a better run in the game than Mike Whan.

Apologies to Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer, but the man of the year in golf is in the women’s game.

The LPGA commissioner continues to deliver in the clutch while leading his tour to the best comeback in the sport.

Brought on five years ago to resuscitate a withering entity, Whan has breathed vibrancy back into the LPGA. His work will be on display at the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla., this week with the tour closing its books on one of its most remarkable seasons. It’s possible the winner of the title could walk away with $1.5 million, the richest payday in the history of the women’s game with a $1 million jackpot up for grabs in the season-long Race to the CME Globe and $500,000 there for the winner of the Tour Championship.

With his originally controversial Founders Cup and fifth major (Evian Championship), with the impressive debut of the International Crown, with news of the creation of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, with expansions into China and Taiwan and with the CME Globe’s rich payday, the once wilting LPGA is resurgent.

In Tuesday’s state of the LPGA address, Whan is expected to unveil a 2015 schedule featuring 33 to 34 events, with somewhere in the neighborhood of $60 million in total purses. That could be an LPGA record haul for prize money. It’s a robust lineup given the grim state of the schedule just three years ago, when the tour shriveled to an anemic 23 events and $40 million in total purses.

While Whan doesn’t script competition, his players seem inspired by the grander stages he is building for them, delivering one delicious storyline after another. From Lexi Thompson’s duel with Michelle Wie in the first major championship of the year, to Wie’s winning the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst, to Mo Martin’s and Christina Kim’s emotional wins and the budding rivalry of Stacy Lewis and Inbee Park, the LPGA is compelling theater.

“Our fan base is growing, our viewership is growing, and it’s because of everything Mike Whan has touched,” said Ricki Lasky, the LPGA’s vice president of tournament business affairs.

Player morale is high.

“I’ve been on tour nearly 20 years, and in that time there’s never been such a good feeling about what the tour and staff are doing,” said Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, an LPGA board member. “It’s been amazing to be on the board, to watch Mike in action in the rebuilding process.”

The angst that once permeated the tour is fading as confidence in Whan, chief marketing officer Jon Podany and the rest of the executive staff grows.

“I’ve been out here a long time, and players are always bitching,” Hall of Famer Juli Inkster said. “You just don’t hear that much anymore.”

Nobody appreciates the direction Whan is steering the LPGA more than Inkster and Helen Alfredsson. They were player members on the LPGA board of directors when the tour was searching for a successor to Carolyn Bivens, who was ousted in a player revolt during the 2009 season. The tour was floundering then, with Bivens’ heavy-handed tactics alienating the Tournament Owners Association and with a sour economy helping drive away title sponsors by the bunch.

Inkster and Alfredsson knew how critical hiring their next commissioner would be. Yes, every time the tour hires a commissioner, there’s a sense of urgency, but never quite like that.

“We could have lost the tour easily,” Inkster said.

Alfredsson felt the same powerful sense of responsibility in the search.

“We were still paying Carolyn Bivens, and we were paying an interim commissioner,” Alfredsson said. “It felt like this could make or break us. We needed to get this right and start mending relationships.”

Whan, 44 at the time, was an unfamiliar name when the tour’s head-hunting firm brought him in for an interview. His resume included two years as vice president at Wilson Sporting Goods in charge of the golf ball and golf glove business. He was with TaylorMade for three years as vice president of marketing, but he hadn’t been in the golf business in 10 years when the LPGA came calling. He was a successful former CEO, but he wasn’t even in a leadership position at the time. He came to the LPGA as an independent consultant after the company he last led, Mission Itech Hockey, was sold.

Ultimately, Whan’s greatest skills weren’t necessarily there to see in his resume. They came through in his interviews.

“Mike was smart, and he was so likeable, in a genuine way,” Alfredsson said. “He was up front and honest, and there was no B.S., no hidden agendas.”

Inkster and Alfredsson knew the LPGA needed a strong leader and a sharp business mind, but they knew it needed something more to rebuild broken relationships and broken trust with so many business partners.

“We needed a good people person,” Inkster said.

Mike Whan

LPGA founders Louise Suggs and Shirley Spork with Mike Whan (Getty)

Though Whan committed what would seem a cardinal sin in the interview process, wondering aloud if he was the right person for the job, given his limited involvement in golf, his personality proved irresistible.

“I’ve never seen anyone more comfortable in their own skin,” Lasky said.

That came through to board members.

“Juli and I looked at each other like, ‘This is the guy,’” Alfredsson said. “It was, ‘How could you not want to do business with this guy?’ He just seemed like such a good fit for our organization.”

Five years later, LPGA members can’t imagine the tour without Whan.

“I just hope he stays,” Inkster said.

That’s almost a refrain when LPGA members are asked about Whan’s leadership now. While Whan has given the tour no reason to believe he’s considering other opportunities, it’s a testament to his leadership that players fear losing him.

Webb believes that’s based in knowing the corporate world sees what LPGA members have been seeing in Whan since he arrived.

“Mike is a go-getter, and if there’s nothing left to go get, the fear is he might not be as interested,” Webb said. “I think the LPGA was a great challenge for him, and because he’s doing such a great job, there are going to be a lot of great opportunities out there for him, if he were to look. I know as a board, it’s very important for us that he knows how much we appreciate him.”

That’s why the board is looking at extending Whan’s contract again. His original deal was renewed at the end of 2012 and now runs through 2016.

“We are doing everything in our power to keep him on our team, because we know what an asset he is,” LPGA president Vicki Goetze-Ackerman said. “Hopefully, we can get an extension, but nothing has been presented to Mike at this point. We’re still talking about it.”

Whan told that he has no plans to leave and merely hopes to be around “as long as the members will have me.”

What are the secrets to Whan’s success? First, he’ll tell you it isn’t his success. A former Miami of Ohio quarterback, Whan will tell you he knows how to get the ball into the hands of skill players on his team. He hires good people. He’ll also tell you up front that he fumbles a lot. He isn’t afraid of taking risks.

“I probably make more mistakes than your average leader,” said Whan, who believes thinking bigger requires taking bigger risks.

Whan didn’t exactly take the commissioner’s job by storm. He weighed his risks before taking them.

Upon his hiring, Whan announced he wasn’t going to take over for 100 days. He was going to spend that time studying the tour. He calls it the “Listen, learn and lead” method. It would prove the most critical step in his rebuilding of the tour.

Listening and learning would spawn the formulation of two important ideas Whan used to turn around the tour.

1. Role reversal.

2. Act like a founder.

“I came out of those meetings after 100 days asking ‘What’s missing in the room?’” Whan said. “For me, it was the sponsor, the sponsor’s voice.”

Mike Whan

Mike Whan with KPMG chairman John Veihmeyer and PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua (Getty)

With that simple observation, Whan dramatically changed the nature of the way LPGA staff members think of themselves today.

“We thought we were in the business of running golf tournaments,” Whan said.

Whan sold his staff on the radical notion that this wasn’t the tour’s primary purpose. Yes, running tournaments are an integral function of the tour, but the success of the tour hinged on a greater purpose.

“Coming out of those 100 days, the first thing I said to the gang is that we are going to have to embrace the term ‘role reversal,’” Whan said. “We spend way too much time talking about pin placements, about how many players are in the field, and where the ropes are going to be, and where the media center should be.

“None of that stuff really matters to the guy who is writing the check, and we don’t spend any time talking about the check writers. Companies that don’t spend time talking about their customers, they wake up without customers. We have to start thinking like title sponsors.”

So Whan trained his staff to quit thinking about selling golf tournaments. He trained them to listen, and to learn to sell what a title sponsor needed.

“You listen to the title sponsor you want to sell to first, and then you go back to them,” Whan said. “You can’t sell on the first visit. That’s a really tough concept for some sales people.

“You go to a title sponsor, and you listen to them. You find out what they’re really looking for. You ask what they like about pro-ams, what they think could make them better. When you really understand what they’re looking for, you go back, and when you sell, you use their words.”

You sell title sponsors what they really want.

Whan transformed the LPGA’s relationship with the Tournament Owners Association. He rebuilt that organization’s trust and faith in LPGA leadership.

“The tournament owners needed to know Mike wasn’t there just to take their money,” said Gail Graham, the former head of the TOA and now the CME tournament director. “He was there as a partner, to help them make an investment in a property that would help them reach their marketing goals. He rebuilt those relationships.”

Whan said the creation of the Race to the CME Globe and its $1 million jackpot was role reversal at its best. It was listening to CME chairman and president Terry Duffy’s desire to have CME involved in something that covered the length of the season. It began with the Titleholders concept, where the top three players from every tournament advanced to the CME’s season-ending event, but it evolved into the CME Globe, something more precisely what Duffy envisioned.

Role reversal also led to the development of weekly partner profile sheets. They go to all the players committed to a tournament. They contain the photos and names of the “check writers” for the title sponsor behind that particular week’s event. They summarize why the sponsor got involved in the event, and what goals the sponsors have. The partner profiles also tell players where to send their thank you notes.

Whan loves telling how a partner profile sheet actually led to Christina Kim popping outside the ropes in the middle of a round when she spotted an executive who was photographed in the partner profile sheet. Kim stunned the executive knowing his name, shaking his hand and thanking him.

“Thank goodness most sports aren’t doing role reversal,” Whan said. “If Major League Baseball was big into role reversal, I would have a problem, because they deliver bigger audiences, but they don’t deliver the same experiences, because they don’t consider the check writer their customers. They consider their fans their customers.”

The “Act like a founder” concept didn’t come from Whan’s first 100 days, but it did come from listening and learning. It came from listening to Hall of Famer Louise Suggs and the other living LPGA founders. It came from a slogan offered up by Kia Classic tournament director Dennis Baggett. Whan turned it into a mantra in LPGA offices, where he posted it on signs, and where he ends meetings repeating the mantra.

“One of Mike’s strengths is consistent messaging,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s vice president of tour operations. “He leads by example that way. He acts like a founder. He’s working to leave the tour better than he found it.”

In Whan’s eyes, there’s a lot more work to do building the tour. He isn’t satisfied, and he isn’t done. With the schedule now rebuilt to where Whan wants it, his focus is stabilizing the LPGA’s major championships. He wants them to have the long traditions the men have built, without being so dependent on title sponsorship. With KPMG and the PGA of America absorbing the LPGA Championship next year, Whan is almost there. He only needs to find an arrangement for the former Kraft Nabisco to reach that goal. After that, he’ll be focused on creating greater exposure for his women, and then on building larger purses.

It’s all with “Acting like a founder” in mind.

“Thinking like a founder is a big thing for our organization,” Goetze-Ackerman said. “Those women who were the founders laid the groundwork for us. They thought about the sponsors. They went out and marked the golf courses themselves. They got it. They understood. Somewhere along the line, we lost that, but we’ve gotten it back. That’s been a huge idea within LPGA headquarters. Mike’s really expressed the importance of that and gotten us all thinking that way.”

It has helped Whan turn around the LPGA.