Mike Whan became commissioner of the LPGA Tour in 2010, and under his guidance the LPGA has seen growth in purse size, number of events and network TV slots—all considered a success. As Whan enters his 10th year as commissioner, he sat down with Golf Digest's Keely Levins to talk about the partnerships and projects most important to the LPGA and women's golf in 2019.
The LPGA’s newest prize is the AON Risk Reward Challenge, where the player who plays the most strategically difficult holes the best over the course of the season will win $1 million, on both the LPGA and PGA tours. What about this new prize is exciting to you?
"I like that it’s season long. I like things that hold our season together—we have the Race to the CME Globe, the Leaders Top 10, and now Risk and Reward. It creates an ongoing theme, it’s something we’ll be talking about 13, 14, 15 weeks at the end of the year. I like that, it keeps it interesting. I’m curious to see who handles this, and whether or not if you know late in the season you’re on the leaderboard, whether you’re going to think differently about risk/reward holes. I think at the beginning they’re just going to play. But then in August, if you realize you’re in fourth—a million bucks is a million bucks. It’s going to be interesting. It’s a great example of a mega company looking at the LPGA and making more of a statement than just ‘we sponsor women’s golf.’ It’s a statement in the amount of the prize, but it’s also a statement in treating the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour the same. Luckily for me, we’ve had a lot of those statements. When DOW joined us, I thought, ‘They’re thinking about us in such a bigger way.’ "
How important is it to you that the PGA and LPGA tour have the same prize money for this new award?
"Before being commissioner, I was a sponsor. I’ve written checks to every sport, and I get it, you pay for what that entity can deliver. And we deliver about a fourth of the eyeballs the PGA Tour does week in and week out, and that translates about to what we play for. That’s not something have to have a sponsor solve, that’s something we have to solve. But it’s really encouraging that in the last few years sponsors have come to me with some real foundational moves in the direction of payment equality. When CME came to me and said they wanted a winner’s check of $1.5 million, I wasn’t there pleading for a higher purse, they came to us. When AON said we want to pay the men and the women the same for this competition, it wasn’t a mandate from me in our agreement. So, you asked how important it is, I think the importance is that it wasn’t my idea. Companies are bringing it to me, not the other way around. We have a lot to do to solve payment inequality, and it has nothing to do with sponsors. But when sponsors say it’s what I want to do because it’s the right thing to do, then I think we’re seeing a really good shift happening."
Is payment inequality something players talk about a lot?
"Players talk about it on and off. We talk about it more the bigger the purses and payouts get. I feel like we talked about it more at KPMG than other weeks, because KPMG has organized conferences with leaders there, so you’re talking about it there. Second you’re playing at the courses the guys have played. It’s not a daily conversation. My basic thing is, if you’re in the top 150-200 players in the world at something, financially you should be ok. And that’s not the case at the LPGA. if you’re in the top 80 you’re probably ok. But you can finish 130 on our money list and are probably still calling and asking for help with travel for the tournaments in Asia in the fall. That’s not only not right, it’s unacceptable. But we’re much better. My first year, we had two players making $1 million, last year we had 18. Seven years ago we were talking about $40 million in purses, now we’re talking about $71 million. It’s great that we’re up in purses, but we can do better than we’re doing."
There are four new evens on the schedule this year. Which are you most excited for?
"I don’t know if I can pick one, but i’m really excited about the two-person team competition with Dow Chemical [sponsor of the new Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational]. When I saw the Zurich Classic, I thought, 'I bet that’s fun to play in.' So I said to our team, we need that event. So I’m excited to see that. It’s the first time in LPGA Tour history that it’s a team competition where the points and money are official. The Diamond Resorts celebrity event will probably be the most fun for me—virtually every night is a different concert."
You’re been commissioner since 2010. What are you most proud of that’s been accomplished in your time as commissioner?
"I accepted the job and went to the Tour Championship in Houston in 2009. Louise Suggs and were talking, and she said, ‘Kid, don’t mess this up.’ I remember thinking, I thought they hired me to make things better. But her point was that people worked really hard to make sure these women could play professional golf for a living. She said you only have one job, no matter how long you stay there, you leave golf better than you found it. Michelle Wie walked by and Louise pointed at her and said, Her daughter better have better opportunities than she did. That embedded in my head. We introduced 4500 girls to the game through Girls Golf per year when I started. If you jump to today, we introduce nearly 90,000 girls to the game each year. If you look at junior golf today, a third of juniors are girls. At this continuing rate, adult golf is going to be 50/50, and it’s not going to be 50/50 by some lightning strike, it’s going to be that because we’re changing junior golf. So if I’m being honest, commissioners come and go and I’ll just be another one when I leave, but the one thing we’ll leave is that we’ll leave women’s golf better in the future."