U.S. Open 2021: Can new USGA boss Mike Whan help solve golf’s biggest challenges?
If the public’s feelings about the USGA could be distilled into a building, the result would look something like the clubhouse at The Olympic Club: formal and old-fashioned. It seems fitting then that the debut of Mike Whan as the new face of the USGA came at Olympic in late April during a media day touting the U.S. Women’s Open. When someone referred to Whan as “Boss,” he parried, “Not yet.” But he was just being literal. Whan’s first day as CEO was still a few weeks away, but the announcement on Feb. 17 that he would take the job had already sent a bolt of lightning through an organization that dates to 1894, and the energy he radiated at Olympic was palpable. His predecessor Mike Davis—who was beloved internally and regarded as an expert on golf-course setups—wore the traditionalist tag as comfortably as a blue blazer. Whan got the job because he is viewed—inside and outside the USGA—as an agent of change after a successful 11-year tenure as LPGA commissioner.
“No question he is a doer, a visionary, and that he brings ideas to life,” says USGA president J. Stuart Francis. (One of Whan’s challenges will be maintaining continuity as the USGA welcomes a new president every three years; “I value the different perspectives they will bring,” Whan says, “but it’s my job to steer the ship.”)
Whan’s impact on the LPGA can be quantified in the schedule (34 tournaments in 2021 compared with 24 when he took over) and prize money (a record $76.5 million this year). He championed the creation of the International Crown, Founders Cup and Race to the CME Globe and helped transform the Women’s PGA. Just as lasting is the close connection he forged with the players, each of whom was famously given his cell number. Through the years Whan, 56, fielded calls on everything from pin positions to the clubhouse buffet, but it was the open dialogue on weightier matters that changed the culture of the LPGA.
“He did more than give us a voice; he held the megaphone to our lips,” says LPGA veteran Christina Kim. “He made us feel empowered and invested in the future of the tour. Because of that, we were willing to support his vision of what we could be.”
Whan grew up in Naperville, Ill., and at 13 worked on the maintenance crew of a country club. He was a youth-sports quarterback who idolized an older, grittier neighborhood kid who became a mentor: Sean Payton, who played two seasons in the NFL and later coached the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl title. Whan graduated from Miami University of Ohio and began his corporate career at Proctor & Gamble. Ever the relentless salesman, he says with a laugh, “I still have a passion for toothpaste.”
But Whan’s heart was always in sports, and he jumped at the chance to work for Wilson Sporting Goods, overseeing the golf-ball division, and later became an executive vice president at TaylorMade. It is a provocative résumé for the leader of the USGA, but Whan carries his outsider status with pride, noting that he is hardly an expert on the rules. For an organization that has skewed insular, Whan’s unorthodox background and skill as a communicator came to be seen as a plus.
“He has a deep understanding of the changing landscape, and that is critical given all the important topics that exist in golf,” Francis says. “It’s a complex job, being the CEO, but you need to distill it in understandable ways to a variety of constituents. Mike is effective at doing that. As we are dealing with a period of significant change, his ability to get our points across becomes critical.”
Golf Digest talked with Whan at The Olympic Club, where he nursed a Coke Zero—he refused to say how many he drinks in a day, but suffice to say it is a lot—and radiated a caffeinated enthusiasm for the challenges that await.
FACE TIME: Whan is known for walking the range at tournaments. Here (from left) with Jess McAlister, Randi Zuckerberg, Kira K. Dixon, Jeehae Lee and Marissa Mar.
From the moment you said you were leaving the LPGA Tour there was speculation you would land at the USGA, even though you were an unconventional candidate for the CEO job. During the interview process, who was selling who?
When I left the LPGA, I certainly did not have a job at the USGA. I talked my wife into, “Let’s take 2021 off and have some fun.” But I had met with part of the USGA selection crew during the U.S. Women’s Open in November, and I was pretty sure that was the last meeting we were going to have. It wasn’t uncomfortable; it wasn’t confrontational, but I was honest, and I was pretty sure my honesty and my approach was going to be mismatched enough that they would say, “Yeah, we checked that box.” But Stu [Francis] called me back and said, “I really think that went well. They understand you’re different, but you come from a place of knowledge.” I remember thinking when I got off the phone, Maybe there’s something here. Because there’s a strength in how the USGA tackles a problem and understands governance, and some of the stuff that I don’t have the patience for will be good for me to learn. If I’m smart enough to let them teach me while I’m trying to teach them, I could be good for them, and they could be good for me.
Is that one of your mandates, to change the culture?
I’ve not been given any mandates.
OK, unofficial mandate.
They know I wouldn’t be able to help myself. I’ve nicknamed half the board already. It’s gonna be different, right?
Provide the nicknames, please.
Aw, no, no, I can’t. The board doesn’t know their nicknames yet! But that’s just who I am. They did enough homework on me to know I will be culturally different. There’s virtually no doubt about that.
The USGA has made its share of missteps over the years, but people in golf are inclined to cut it slack because unlike the players and manufacturers and agents and even the PGA Tour, the USGA’s mission is to protect the game, not make money. It can be frustrating, though, because at times the USGA hasn’t done a good job telling its story . . . . . .
....even when it’s overwhelmingly successful. Take a look at the rules changes from a few years ago. We all went through this awkward transition, and that got a lot of attention, but today, I can’t think of a rules change in that modernization that wasn’t a home run. But I’m not sure the USGA would ever take a bow. To their credit, they don’t really get too out of whack when it doesn’t work out, but they also don’t get too high when it’s successful. They’re steady that way. I don’t have that. I’m a highs and lows guy. I can promise you a year from now, if we do another interview, I’ll be telling you about the 15 things the USGA is really proud of in terms of moving the needle for the game of golf. I was built with a marketing bone that’s out of whack, so I won’t know how to tamp that down.
That could prove useful because, for whatever reason, tour players these days love to criticize the USGA. How do you win them over?
I don’t know many players on the men’s tour. If there are strong points of view that they think the USGA should hear, I should be the one hearing them. We have a deal at the LPGA where if we get a negative email or a negative call from a consumer or a fan or a member, it has to go to me first. Then I can route it to whatever department. But it’s gotta start with me. I feel like sometimes when you sit at the highest office, by design only the good news makes it to you because nobody wants to tell you the bad news, right? My assistant [at the LPGA] always found it strange that Tuesday when I was at a tournament was blocked in my schedule. It was because I walked the range so that I could hear from my members. If you’re there, they’ll talk to you. If you’re not, they’ll talk to somebody else. So I’ll be at the U.S. Amateur, Senior Open, the U.S. Open to talk to the customers, which in this case are the players.
RANGE SESH: Whan, a 4-handicap, gets in a few swings during the U.S. Women’s Open media day at The Olympic Club.
What are some venues you would like to take the U.S. Open to that have not been showcased recently or ever? Got a wish list?
I don’t. There are people at the USGA, hopefully, much smarter than I am on venue selection. I’ll chime in, but I didn’t choose venues at the LPGA, and I won’t choose venues at the USGA. But I will make sure we have a team good enough to choose.
As LPGA commissioner, one of your quiet goals was to have equal purses in the major championships for men and women. You didn’t get it done, but now you’ll have the juice to make it happen at the national championships. Can you say definitively that at some point relatively soon the women will get the same purse as the men in the U.S. Open?
I can’t say definitively, but I think your memory of my perspective is true. I raised three boys, but if I had daughters, I’d want to be able to tell them, “If you can get to the highest level, the treatment you’re going to get, the feeling you’re going to get, the pay you’re going to make is going to be similar to your brother,” as opposed to trying to explain why her dream is worth about 20 percent of his. One significant challenge is that men’s purses aren’t slowing down any time soon, including majors. I’ll say this: When I started at the LPGA, the U.S. Women’s Open was really the front of the parade that pushed the rest of us to catch up in regard to purses. I’m not sure I’d say that today, but I feel comfortable saying that will be the case again soon.
One of your pet peeves has always been that range finders are not allowed in competition. Is that something you’re going to legislate so that they will be allowed at USGA competitions?
We're going to go to range finders on the LPGA in 2022 across the board. The PGA Championship announced the same. It just makes sense. There is nothing worse on TV than watching a golfer and caddie do arithmetic. That is the worst television experience of your life. To me, it's one of those technological improvements that can improve the viewer experience and the pace of play.
What about the optics? You don’t worry about the ghost of Sandy Tatum haunting you because caddies at the U.S. Open are shooting things with a laser?
There’s a lot of ghosts that I worry about bothering me, but that’s not one of ’em.
We all agree the USGA needs to be the arbiter of what happens between the ropes in competition. But what should be the organization’s role in supporting the game at the grassroots level?
I’ve had this phrase in my head forever, which is, The USGA is going to be golf’s greatest trusted partner to champion and advance this game, no matter who you are. Then the question becomes, “What partnership do you need?” If you need agronomy help, then we could be there with agronomy help. If you need help from a membership perspective, then let us provide that. If you need to showcase how you can conserve water, we’ll be there. If we can get into that trusted partner mentality, there’ll be times when we need to take a real leadership role, and there’ll be times when what the partnership people need is a little more behind the scenes. We can’t kid ourselves and think we’re going to be the business answer for everybody, but where we can aid, we should.
The LPGA’s Girls Golf program has been successful creating a large and diverse community of young golfers. What can the USGA do to grow the game?
There aren’t many LPGA players who didn’t have a lot of support to become one of the best players from their country. The only ones who don’t have that are the U.S. players. Lydia Ko can still talk to New Zealand Golf and have real support in terms of guidance, coaches and everything else. She’s had that since her junior days. Why don’t we have a U.S.A. development program for kids? I’m talking about a statewide, then regional, then a national team, and working with our state and regional partners to help these kids. It would be about catching up to what other countries are already doing. I need to figure out how to both fund and create a U.S.A. development program.
That would be a feeder for the Walker Cup or Curtis Cup?
It would be a feeder for virtually everything we do, right? As you know, for every five people that make it to that Walker Cup level, there are 5,000 that had incredible junior careers but didn’t get to that level. Those 5,000 become golf nuts working in the equipment industry, building courses, working in golf shops. Building a strong development program for the youth, especially for diverse youth, changes the way golf looks in 20 years. We just need to be the helping hand, the boost, to help these young folks to keep playing and stay in the game.
This is a fundamental issue facing the USGA: Does it want to be an all-powerful ruling body or a partner with everybody else in the game?
The reality is that we’re going to be a partner in virtually everything we do. There will be things we do where we have to be the final decision maker: rules or what we’re going to do on distance and equipment testing. Some people might not love that, but someone has to make that decision. But as I’ve said to the board, “You can lead a team in a huddle.” You can still huddle the industry, but make sure that people have a chance to talk and vote, and then somebody’s gotta call the play. You don’t have to lead from outside the huddle.
Let’s talk distance debate. Do you agree that at the highest level of the men’s game, the distance gains have fundamentally changed how the sport is played and have rendered a lot of traditional venues, if not obsolete, certainly heading that way?
I don’t know that I agree that it’s fundamentally changed the way the game is played, but I do think it’s creating issues, not only for the people that are hosting events but for anybody who wants to host in the future. I hear people say, “We’re building a course; it’s gonna be 8,700 yards so we can host anything.” The acreage that takes, the water, the maintenance, it all adds up.
For the men’s professional game, do you need to limit the distance players are hitting it?
If we’re talking about the men’s professional game, I’d be surprised if people don’t believe that some degree of reining in wouldn’t be good for the game long-term. I haven’t had those conversations with everybody yet, but I will. I’ve read the Distance Insights study, but I don’t know if the need for change really trickles down to other levels of the game. I question if we need change for the average player. I’m still trying to understand why bifurcation scares everybody as much as it does. I’m not really sure why.
You’re a marketing guy—you know the entire equipment industry is built on 18-handicappers wanting to play the same driver as Dustin Johnson.
I’m enough of a marketing guy to know if Dustin Johnson’s driver is slightly different than the one I can buy at retail, that will have very little impact on the number of drivers he sells. Why does Ford spend $50 million in NASCAR? When I buy my Ford truck, I don’t believe there’s a NASCAR engine under the hood. But I believe that Ford’s investment in building a NASCAR car probably translates into some incredible knowledge that improves the truck I’m driving. By the way, I don’t drive a Ford truck, but my point is what you can do for the best in the world and how that translates down to what you’re doing for consumers. I could probably sit and have that argument with [TaylorMade CEO] David Abeles and [Callaway CEO] Chip Brewer for a long time. But the technology that they’re inventing and bringing to the pros is going to trickle into the hands of the consumer. That technology will be what the average fan wants.
It sounds pretty definitive that you’re on board for a rollback at the pro level.
I don’t have the education that I need on this topic. I’m walkin’ in like every Twitter follower, with just a point of view.
Oh, come on, you worked for TaylorMade and Wilson! You know these issues plenty well enough.
What I’m saying is, I don’t know the perspective of everybody else. That’s one of the reasons I want the job. I really want to listen to other people and understand their perspective. What I would tell you is, I don’t think the world of golf comes to a halt with some sort of bifurcation. I don’t know that I’m right, and I really want to hear other perspectives. I know there’s plenty of people that I’ll work for now who probably will be scared to death of the term bifurcation. I’m not sure that for the average golf course or the average golfer, distance has changed the course or the way they play it. But I don’t think you can say that as you elevate up to the best players in the world.
No one’s wants to take away grandpa’s Big Bertha. We’re just talking about the best of the best. Of course, the Ping lawsuit from 1987 still hovers over this debate. There’s a belief that the USGA is afraid to stand up to manufacturers because of the threat of litigation. Is that fair?
I certainly don’t get that from anybody that I’ve talked to. The USGA really does feel a responsibility to do the right thing for the game for the next hundred years. If you talk to a USGA person, they want to make sure that the game can be just as good, if not better, for the next hundred years as the last hundred. That’s more important to a USGA person than any other counterpoint of view. I said this to the board, and I’ll say it to you: Every time I’ve hit the send button in the past 12 years of my life, 30 percent of the people that received it hate me when they read it. I’m never really sure which 30 until the next morning when I wake up and I hear back, but if that fear of the 30 percent stops you from hitting the send button, then you’re not the right person for the job. You can’t be the commissioner of a sport, you can’t be the CEO of the USGA and think you’re gonna win a popularity contest. I realize that when I stop being the CEO of the USGA, a third of golfers will probably think I was an idiot. I can live with that as long as I feel like that while I was there, I advanced the game, I championed the game, I believe I left the game better for the next generation of players. I’m not sure what decisions will come out of that, but I’m certainly not gonna let fear be the driver in making those decisions.