Here's what made Mike Whan a transformational commissioner, and what the LPGA needs in his successor
LPGA commissioner Michael Whan speaks in March 2019 during the LPGA announcement of a new brand campaign that encouraged girls to #DriveOn.
When his contract with the LPGA expired in 2019, commissioner Mike Whan didn’t commit to staying on for a fixed amount of time. Instead, it was noted that he had agreed to a “long-term extension.” Those who know Whan and what he’s done for the LPGA Tour and women’s golf hoped that would be several more years of leadership. But, surprisingly, it meant just a little more than one. After navigating the tour through the challenge of COVID-19 during the 2020 season, Whan announced Wednesday that he’d be stepping down in 2021.
The tour Whan leaves is far from the one the former marketing executive at Proctor & Gamble, Wilson and TaylorMade inherited in 2010. When the soon-to-be 57-year-old took the job, the tour had 24 tournaments on the schedule with the best women’s golfers in the world playing for a total purse of $41.4 million. In 2021, the tour’s schedule has increased to 34 events, with players competing for a total of $76.5 million. In that time, there’s been a similarly impressive rise in TV exposure for the tour.
Since Whan’s announcement, the reaction of LPGA Tour players (current and past), tournament sponsors and partners, has been a unified outpouring of appreciation and respect. LPGA Tour veteran Christina Kim put it well, noting on Twitter, “I’m going to miss our phone calls, our discussion and seeing your passion for the game in person. I know your love for the LPGA will never wane, and your name will go down in the history books for being one of the greatest advocates for the game.”
In Kim’s message, you can see one of the keys that made Whan a great commissioner: He had the trust and support of his players. During a tenure that was the longest of any of the eight commissioners in the tour’s history, Whan gained that by the genuine way he interacted with them. The line of communication between Whan and LPGA Tour members was always direct, which helped goals remain aligned. It allowed for the growth and success of the tour to be something they all took on together. His mantra of “Act Like a Founder” was not just a slogan, but an authentic pledge and mindset.
Though the LPGA Tour is the commissioner’s priority, one of the most impressive stats from his time at the tour comes from work he oversaw on the junior level, through the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program. When he started as commissioner, the tour says 5,000 girls were engaged with golf. Now, that number is 90,000.
Whan also helped create an infrastructure that’s strengthened the women’s professional game overall. Under his guidance, the LPGA took over the management of the Symetra Tour and made it a viable developmental circuit for up-and-coming players. In 2019, the LPGA entered into a partnership with the Ladies European Tour that has helped maintain playing opportunities for European and international competitors.
Last summer, Whan showed some of his laid-back personality when he served as a on-course reporter for Golf Channel for a round at the LPGA Drive On tournament in Georgia.
It’s the fact that the LPGA is in such a strong position, and the team he has in place is as good as it is, that Whan feels comfortable leaving.
“If I’m honest with you, watching us work through the pandemic of 2020 was the visualization I needed to know that it was not only time, but it was right,” Whan said. “I watched my team take over in 2020. And I think five years ago, pandemic hits, Mike Whan probably does much of the taking over.”
So, now that Whan has announced his departure, where does he go next? He said he has no plans and is reveling in the nervousness that comes with that.
“I like to live my life pretty nervous, and I haven’t been really nervous in a while and I want to get back to that,” Whan said. “I’m not exactly sure where that’s going to take me, but every time I've been this nervous in the past, the outcome has been pretty exciting.”
Mike Davis, the CEO of the USGA, announced last fall that he’ll be stepping down in 2021. It hasn’t taken long for many to speculate that maybe the USGA is Whan’s next stop. Whan says it’s premature to talk about that as a possibility.
“I think for any job, that one certainly included, requires a cleanse of my brain to get … [it] requires both parties to think it’s a good idea,” Whan said. “I feel like there will be opportunities. Probably there will be opportunities in golf, and I certainly think there will be opportunities in sport that are worth a solid look on both sides.”
Whan plays a shot during the CME Group charity event to benefit St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in 2018.
As he looks at his own future, he’ll be helping the LPGA as it begins the search for his replacement. One of the critical questions will be how big a priority is it to hire a woman for the job. Diane Gulyas, who chairs the LPGA Board of Directors, said that all options will be considered, citing that the staff at the tour is already 80-percent female.
“I think we have a very, very good representation today at all levels, but clearly it would be terrific if we had a female commissioner,” Gulyas said. “But we’re not going to rule anybody out. We want the very best commissioner we can get. Mike Whan has been positive proof that you pick the best guy, or the best person, and you’ll have amazing results.”
Whan agrees that regardless of whether the commissioner is male or female, the tour is ultimately in the hands of women.
“The LPGA is going to be run by women,” Whan said. “It is today and will be in the future. So, if the next person doesn’t get that, they’ll be miserable.”
That was something Whan prioritized: the tour is about the players and finding ways to create an environment where they can thrive. It’ll be a difficult task to find someone who can do as good of a job at that as Whan has.