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New decade of Whan: 'Turning up volume' on women’s empowerment

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Mike Whan prays aloud sometimes.

Back in 1996, when he was vice president of marketing at TaylorMade Golf, he remembers being alone in the bedroom of his family’s home in Carlsbad, California. He and his wife, Meg, already had two young boys and she was pregnant with their third child.

He remembers praying for God to bless them with a daughter.

“I wanted to raise a little girl,” Whan recently told “I just thought it would be neat for the family, for my wife to have a girl and the boys to have a sister.”

Whan didn’t know Meg was in the closet putting away laundry until he was done praying.

“She came out and kind of scolded me for praying for the sex of the baby,” Whan said. “As it turned out, we had another boy, and the great news is that he’s the greatest kid in the world.”

Mike couldn’t imagine their family without Connor, his youngest son, now 22, or without their oldest son, Austin, 25, and their second son, Wes, 23.

But as Whan celebrates his 10th anniversary Saturday as LPGA commissioner, he looks back at that prayer, believing his higher power devised a better plan. Now, Whan can’t imagine life without the 200 or so LPGA pros he treats like adopted daughters.

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“My wife says, in time, God answers prayers, but maybe not in the way we expect,” Whan said. “I really believe, in some strange way, he answered my prayer. I wanted to raise and impact a young woman’s life, but there was another plan, another way to do that.”

Whan, 54, begins his 11th year at the LPGA’s helm with a new long-term contract in place. It’s uniquely open-ended, with both he and the tour having the option to end the deal without penalty, if either chooses to walk away.

LPGA fans need not worry. Whan has no plans to leave anytime soon. He said the nature of the new contract was set up, mostly, so the tour won’t be financially burdened if it decides to end the relationship.

“When it’s time for me to go, I don’t want the LPGA to feel like it owes me three years of income,” Whan said. “That’s a terrible way to run a company, where every dollar goes back to the members.”

Whan’s reign has been so successful that his commitment to stay with the LPGA surprised colleagues, who believed he was set up to take advantage of more lucrative opportunities. He did, after all, engineer one of the great turnarounds in sport, taking the LPGA from the brink of collapse to the most robust global position in its 70 years of existence.

Whan’s success, with a tenure three years longer than any other commissioner in LPGA history, led to growing queries among friends who were sure he was poised to make a career move.

“When people asked what I was going to do next, I never answered,” Whan said. “But, usually, I didn’t have to, because people always had an answer for me. It was, 'Hey, Mike, are you going to go to work for Jay [Monahan] at the PGA Tour?’ Or, 'Are you going to Major League Baseball?’ Everybody assumed I wanted to parlay this success to a bigger gig with the men.”

Whan said he might have been thinking that back when he was 35 years old, but not now.

All the work that went into turning around the LPGA didn’t just change the tour. It changed him.

As Whan rebuilt the organization, he saw it evolving into something stronger than he envisioned in his own blueprint. He watched it become something larger than tour golf, with a purpose embodying a higher, nobler cause for women of all walks of life, women aspiring to become more than societal traditions allow them to be.

“It was transformational for me,” he said.

Now, Whan can’t imagine leaving his adopted daughters with this larger purpose still to pursue, with women’s empowerment a cause he is committed to champion:

Growing the game to where half the golf population is female.

Growing the profile of his players with more network TV opportunities.

Narrowing the gender pay gap.

They’re all more aggressively in his crosshairs today.

“I can’t just let that be somebody else’s problem,” Whan said. “I can’t be thinking, 'I rebuilt the LPGA, now I am going to cash out and go to a bigger platform.’ That would feel wrong. You’re either in this, or you’re not.”

Whan is all in.

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Caddie, quarterback and underdog . . .

Growing up in Naperville, Illinois, Whan loved the idyllic Midwestern life.

In junior high, he would throw his golf bag over his shoulder in the morning, hop on his 10-speed bike and race with his buddies to Springbrook Golf Course where they would spend nearly the entire summer day.

They played golf until 1:15 in the afternoon, then dashed to the clubhouse, to watch the Cubs on WGN-TV when the team was playing afternoon games at Wrigley Field, before Chicago put up lights at the ballpark.

“The golf course was just a real comfortable, safe place for me,” Whan said. “Even now, when I’m out walking a course, it reminds me of those carefree, summer days as a kid.”

His father played, too, and later his mom took up the game.

“I got the birds-and-bees speech from my dad sitting on some bleachers behind a green at Springbrook,” Whan remembers.

There were a lot of life lessons on golf courses, with Whan becoming a caddie and then working on grounds crews when the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, after his sophomore year of high school.

Whan can see the training ground his life offered him as a future LPGA commissioner now. That goes back to his days watching Sean Payton, now the New Orleans Saints head coach, who was a role model, even as a kid. They grew up in the same neighborhood in Naperville. Whan was a year younger and idolized Payton, who, like Whan, was a youth quarterback.

“[Payton] wasn’t a real gifted athlete, but he was a real self-made player,” Whan said. “Watching his work ethic shaped me.”

Whan went on to walk on as a quarterback at Miami of Ohio. He got his first job upon graduating at Procter & Gamble, where he learned the company’s meticulous study of customers. He moved on to Wilson Sporting Goods’ golf division, which was struggling at the time, looking to regain former glory. From there, he moved on to TaylorMade Golf, where he dealt with elite athletes, then on to become president of Britesmile and finally on to become CEO of Mission-Itech Hockey, where he rebuilt a struggling equipment company into one of the top three businesses in that industry.

“The LPGA was in decline and needed a turnaround, somebody who could change a culture, change a brand and change perceptions,” said Jed Hughes, a vice chairman at Korn Ferry, who recruited Whan to the LPGA. “Mike was passionate about golf, and he was somebody who could build relationships, manage relationships and establish credibility with stakeholders.”

In other words, he was just what the floundering LPGA needed at the time.

Commissioner Whan talks 2020: We’re thinking about how to make big events bigger

Commissioner Whan talks 2020: We’re thinking about how to make big events bigger

Turning up the volume on women’s issues

Whan rebuilt the LPGA with servanthood-style leadership.

Skilled at marketing and sales,  he turned the LPGA into a worthy partner, with his trustworthiness making him good on the delivery of tour promises.

He retrained staff and players to think like title sponsors, to anticipate the needs of check writers in a “role reversal” business philosophy. He also retrained them to “act like founders,” to devote themselves to leaving the tour better than they found it, the way the tour’s 13 founders did.

And he also embraced new global opportunities in Asia and beyond, significantly strengthening the tour’s financial base when so many critics thought the influx of international players was diminishing the product.

He took over a tour that had sagged to 23 events and $40 million in total prize money, rebuilding it to 33 events and $75 million this year.

While Whan’s governing principles would serve nicely as a sort of GPS to steer the LPGA ship for whoever eventually follows him as commissioner, the man himself has become an integral part of the tour’s new DNA.

“A big reason we made a significant investment with the LPGA was because of Mike Whan and the type of person he demonstrated he was,” said John Veihmeyer, the global chairman of KPMG International, when it agreed to title sponsor the Women’s PGA Championship in 2015. “That personal relationship was very important.”

As a former CEO himself at Mission-Itech Hockey, Whan knows how to work a board room. He knows a diplomat’s charms and how to win hearts and minds.

But he’s also a former walk-on collegiate quarterback who knows how to fight for the extra yard, and who knows what it’s like to be the underdog.

That’s what he sees the LPGA’s larger purpose now requiring of him. There’s more than an extra yard to be won for the empowerment of women.

“Mike’s turning up the volume,” said Jon Iwata, the former IBM chief marketing officer who now sits on the LPGA’s board of directors. “His conviction is growing and intensifying every month.”

LPGA fans heard it at the CME Group Tour Championship in November, when Whan publicly challenged CEOs in ways he never has before.

“Live your values,” Whan said there.

It echoed like a new battle cry.

He called out corporations who substantially fund men’s sports but don’t spend a dime on women's sports. He pointed out the mixed message they send with marketing budgets that don’t align with their stated values, and that don’t match their pledges to honor women in the workplace.

“I was cheering in the back of the room,” said Roberta Bowman, a former Duke Energy executive who is now the LPGA’s chief brand and communications officer. “You’ve heard the term 'Greenwashing,’ where companies claim to be environmental leaders but don’t necessarily have the performance to support it. Mike realizes there’s some 'Girlwashing’ going on as well, where companies say they are committed to opportunities for girls, but hard evidence doesn’t support it, in terms of hiring, promoting and where they spend their marketing dollars.”

Whan understands the argument women in sports face, how TV viewership and ticket sales explain why LPGA purses are less than one-sixth of the total prize and FedExCup bonus money played for by PGA Tour pros.

“All those things are true,” Whan said. “But women’s golf isn’t going to change because all of a sudden women’s viewership spikes. What’s going to change it is TV executives having to explain why 94 percent of what they show during prime hours is men’s sports. That’s going to become less and less acceptable, regardless of how much you try to validate it. It’s not going to fly.

“It’s like what brought about Title IX. At some point, somebody just said, 'This is B.S.’ What’s happening is just wrong, if the right thing to do is equality.”

Whan said “return on investment” arguments are unfair because of the handicap women face.

“I have one-fifth of the TV viewership the PGA Tour has, but you can’t compare my viewership to theirs when they have 40 weeks of network TV coverage and we have four weeks,” he said. “At some point, starting 100 yards behind the guys becomes unacceptable. Put us both on the same starting line, give us a couple years of exposure, and I’d be happy to compare my numbers.”

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A spark Whan didn’t foresee igniting

Whan knew KPMG was a game changer when it signed on to become the title sponsor of the Women’s PGA Championship, beginning in 2015. He knew the company’s pedigree and commitment to women was the kind of spark the tour needed. He loved that the company put Stacy Lewis on equal footing with Phil Mickelson as brand ambassadors, that she shared stages with him in advertisements and other public appearances.

Initially, Whan confesses, he didn’t foresee how KPMG’s women’s empowerment message would begin reshaping the tour’s identity.

Veihmeyer, KPMG International’s global chairman at the time, insisted the championship elevate women on and off the course. That meant a larger purse for players and the classic major championship venues the PGA of America could deliver. It also meant the LPGA’s and PGA of America's assistance building a women’s leadership summit and their support funding a future women’s leaders scholarship program.

“Those pieces were vital to us agreeing to be the title sponsor,” Veihmeyer said.

KPMG inspired other events to follow its lead. Today, 15 LPGA tournaments host women’s leadership conferences.

Whan credits Iwata for helping him see the LPGA as an ideal vehicle for delivering more women’s empowerment messages. The brainstorm unfolded in Iwata’s first board meeting at the start of the 2018 season.

“I was like the guy in the room who didn’t get it, at first,” Whan said. “It just flew over my head.”

Bowman says that’s an exaggeration, that Whan caught on more quickly than he tells, and that Whan’s skills helped direct the collaboration that would eventually spawn the tour’s “Drive On” campaign.

“Mike is an idea machine,” Bowman said. “But by bringing different skills and leadership styles to the board, he is able, like a symphony conductor, to get the best out of us all.”

The “Drive On” campaign is a series of commercials that connect the LPGA with the inclusion, diversity and women’s empowerment stories that have been unfolding in its ranks since the tour’s inception in 1950.

“It’s been part of our DNA for over 70 years,” Whan said.

Now, Whan’s taking that more polished message to corporations that want to tell their own empowering stories.

“It’s a distinctive leadership trait Mike has, to serve sponsors, to listen and give them what they want, but to also lead them with humility, to articulate a future they’ll want to follow,” Iwata said.

Bowman believes the larger purpose Whan is following will open more game-changing doors for women in and out of golf.

“I cling to the belief that this is the time, this is the moment," she said, "and the LPGA has an important part to play in it."