When I joined the LPGA as a content producer in 2015, Commissioner Mike Whan called me during my first week on the job, not because I had already screwed up, but because it was a tradition he had established.
I was nervous. The commissioner of the LPGA was calling me? What was I going to talk to him about? The call couldn’t have been easier. He’d done his homework. We’d both grown up in Cincinnati and our shared misery in supporting our hometown Bengals became an instant topic of conversation. It would lay the groundwork for many more easy conversations as we’d cross paths boarding planes, working in media centers and walking on courses around the world.
During my five years working at the LPGA, I experienced first-hand the energy and passion that Whan shared with his team. I drank the Kool-Aid. During more than one year-end holiday party, I was left with a tear in my eye after Whan gave a speech to the company. I’d leave the party invigorated, energized and ready to recommit to another year sharing the stories of some of the best female athletes in the world. My experience at the LPGA would forever change the course of my life and covering the tour has become my life’s passion.
Whan also got to know his team on a personal level. In 2018, I was hospitalized and put on bed rest in the final trimester of my pregnancy. No longer able to travel or return to the office, the commissioner reached out to me personally to check and see how I was feeling. He let me know my presence was missed on the road and offered to help in any way he could. I still have the message saved on my phone.
As thoughtful as Whan can be, he is also quite comical. He’s given each employee a nickname. A veteran staffer earned the nickname “Chuck,” because she wears Converse’s Chuck Taylor shoes. When the tour added a new stop in Wisconsin, the cheese capital of the world, he wore a foam cheesehead to the press conference. And at the company’s year-end holiday party, the commissioner was second to none when it came to maximizing the invitation to dress festive. Year after year, he wore everything from Loudmouth pants, to ugly Christmas sweaters, to light-up accessories. Those are the moments his team at the LPGA will remember most.
In 2013, three years after Whan took the helm at the LPGA, the Act Like a Founder award was created. That phrase is emblazoned on the halls of the LPGA offices and serves as a constant reminder to the staff to inspire and encourage their fellow teammates through “passion, pride and perseverance.” The award recognizes employees, as nominated by their peers, who best uphold the values of the original 13 tour founders.
In 2021, the Act Like a Founder award should go to Whan.
During his 11 years as commissioner of the LPGA Tour, he has lived and breathed the saying that he so desperately hoped would inspire his employees’ work. While publicly Whan’s tenure will likely be remembered for the incredible financial turnaround he brought to the organization, lifting it from economic despair in 2010 to a record-setting purse in 2021, I believe his employees will most remember his time at the LPGA for something much different; his passion for the LPGA, the perseverance he’s showed in leading the organization through adversity and the pride he has in his staff.
It’s at that annual year-end celebration where the Act Like a Founder award is presented. When the time comes around in 2021, there is no one more deserving of the recognition than the man who inspired its founding. It’s a chance for his employees to say thank you. For the encouraging words. The thoughtful moments. And all the laughs. And, of course, he should be required to accept in full holiday regalia.
By then, there will be a new commissioner in place. It will take someone special to begin to fill the void left by Whan. It will require someone who doesn’t just know golf, or women’s sports, but someone who really knows the LPGA. The organization is unique. Anyone who has spent time working with or covering the LPGA has quickly learned that it takes a special group to learn to not only survive but thrive in the toughest of times. While other golf institutions have lost dozens of employees in the wake of the pandemic, the LPGA enters 2021 poised for its greatest season yet, with 34 events and a record purse of $76.4 million. That’s a testament to not just Whan’s leadership, but the team he has put in place. In recent years the LPGA has used the #DriveOn campaign to promote women’s empowerment, harkening back to its original 13 female founders. Eighty percent of the LPGA’s leadership roles are held by women. With the growth of the women’s movement in the world in which we live today, it’s the perfect time for a woman to once again lead the LPGA.
In October, I saw Whan at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. It was the first time we’d crossed paths since I’d left the LPGA. The conversation was as easy going as the call we shared during my first week on the job. We exchanged a socially distanced fist bump and he immediately asked how I was doing and about my son.
That’s LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan. Always encouraging and thinking of others. And always acting like a founder.