The best part of being commissioner of the LPGA, Michael Whan says, is simply “golf.”
As he nears the end of a busy first year on the job, the energetic Whan explains why:
“I was in an airport with my parents and I was looking at my Blackberry. We had just landed. And I said, ‘I’ve gotten 130 e-mails since we left.’ And my father said, ‘You’ve gotten 130 e-mails?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, can you believe that? And it will take me an hour to catch up before we catch our connecting plane and I turn it off for the next 130.’
“I was expecting the whole fatherly, ‘Well, hang in there, son,’ speech and he says, ‘Ah, shut up.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, Ah, shut up?’ And he said, ‘Every one of your 130 e-mails, the topic is golf. So don’t start complaining to me about your job. Every time you pick up the phone, every time you walk into an office, every time you go into a meeting, the topic is golf. Everybody in the world would change places with you.’ ”
It’s an important perspective and one Whan reminds himself of every day as the LPGA readies for its season-ending Tour Championship this week in Orlando.
Recently, Global Golf Post editor-in-chief Brian Hewitt sat with Whan to discuss his first year and the wide-ranging challenges that lay ahead for the LPGA in 2011 and beyond.
GGP: What are the differences between the job you thought you were taking last year and the job you now have?
WHAN: The strengths and weaknesses of the different parts of the job have surprised me. I expected to have to do a ton of player education. I thought we would have to teach our athletes the importance of sponsors and pro-am dates. As a former sponsor, I’ve been to more than a few events where nobody knew nor cared. I’ve really ended up getting a lot more player education than I’ve done player educating. Our players get it. I have to be the only commissioner of a pro sports team of athletes that spends as little amount of time thinking about the athletes. My athletes aren’t the issue. They’ve been fantastic and the best calling card I have with the prospective sponsors.
I think that the big surprise of the job is how much incorrect weight is applied to the title. My secretary reminds me all the time when I say, “Can’t I send somebody else to that?” she says if the commissioner isn’t there, they’re going to be offended. That’s not the case when you’re a CEO. But if you get invited to something as commissioner and you send somebody in your place, I can tell you, you run the significant risk of offending that organization. So the most challenging part of the job is your inability to be in so many places at one time. I find the time balance of this job is overwhelming.
GGP: Wouldn’t that be especially true in Asia, where “face” is such an important part of the culture?
WHAN: Absolutely. I’ll get a letter from a major corporate sponsor, or another Asian tour, or a player from another tour … and if the letter is signed to me, what I would have done as a CEO is say, “Hey, Jane (Geddes), Jon (Podany) can you do me a favor and send the note back and give them the answer they’re looking for?” Now I can say, “Hey, can you do me a favor and write the response so that I can put it on my letterhead and send it back because it’s important that it comes from the commissioner.” To your point, I’ve been to every event but I certainly would have felt a greater need to be at most of the Asian events and I probably would have handed more trophies away in Asia than I would have in the States.
GGP: What has been the toughest part of your job this year?
WHAN: I think the toughest part of the job has been dialing back my expectations. I was blessed with some gifts but patience wasn’t one of them. I may say to people there’s a three-year turnaround but what I’m thinking in my head is there’s a six-month turnaround plan. I hate even saying this out loud, but it’s a fact: We’re in a weird economic time and I have to tell my people to stop using that as an excuse. Everybody’s in a weird economic time. You’ve got to find a way.
Having a business commit to a long-term plan with the LPGA or any other sports entity is not a phone call or a visit. It’s multiple phone calls, multiple visits, couple of trips to board meetings, a couple of presentations; get ’em out to events. And we’re in a one- to two-year sales cycle. So I would say the toughest part of the job is realizing that it’s a slower process; it’s a longer sales cycle.
GGP: So the biggest frustration is…?
WHAN: The biggest frustration is, right now, the list of companies that are planning to have an event; want to have an event; know where they want to have it; know what size purse they’re going to have; know what they’re going to do with TV; and are just waiting.
And the reason they’re waiting is that between 20 and 35 percent of their marketing budget is frozen. If we had eight companies sitting here, six of them have a major chunk of their marketing budget frozen. Doesn’t mean they’ve turned them back; doesn’t mean they’re not going to spend them. It just means they’re holding and there’s no way to get through that. It’s the anxiety of not knowing the future. And we’re an easy hold.
GGP: Do you see a thaw of those frozen marketing budgets? What needs to happen for the ice chunks to start breaking up a little bit?
WHAN: I would have told you back in June or July that the thaw was in process. In this job, you really feel closer to the pulse of the economy than I ever have before. I’ve never really been a Wall Street Journal reader cover to cover but in this job I feel like I get it every time I pick up the phone. And in June or July we were in – I wouldn’t necessarily quite say “go mode” – but they were talking about spending money again and talking about what they’re going to do with the now re-appropriated budgets, and then about August and September, everybody started hitting the freeze button again.
What we need to have happen, I’m not sure. From the LPGA prospective, the best thing that has happened in 2010, it seems like when I started this job most of my calls to corporate sponsors, whether they were current or prospective sponsors, started with, “You guys okay?” kind of a concern for the LPGA, which I’m glad that they cared but it’s always strange to start a conversation with, “Are you limping?” And I know that at the end of 2010, we don’t get that anymore. The best part is we’re not in some sort of spiral. We’re not at any kind of risk.
The good news is we will play as much next year as we played this year. We will play for as much money next year, at least, as we played for this year. We will be on TV at least as much or more as this year. But I just don’t like being flat. I don’t want to be flat. Will we be a little bit better than flat? Probably.
GGP: What is the No. 1 priority for 2011?
WHAN: Tournaments. We have a six-point gameplan. I put it in place after 100 days. I spent the first 100 days just trying to listen and learn as much as I could. Knowing that patience isn’t my strength, I almost have to build things that force me to be patient. One of them is don’t walk into a situation and assume you have the answer in the first 100 days. I think I have the answer in 10 days; I just find out 100 days later that half of the answers are wrong, but you are just not sure which half.
GGP: Will you announce your 2011 schedule soon?
WHAN: I think so. I remember sitting in Houston last year, and I was the new commissioner but wasn’t in the job yet. I knew I had a meeting the next morning to talk about a 2010 tournament, so I thought we were announcing the schedule as if it’s done, and then later, at Christmas, I announced the Sybase Match Play Championship. So I said to my group the same thing: We’ve got at least three tournaments we are still working on for ’11. Whether we will go 0 for 3, 1 for 3 or 3 for 3, I have no idea.
GGP: How important is grasping “global” for the the LPGA?
WHAN: If you and I went to our website right now, I promise you we are getting as many hits from Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Australia as we are getting from the U.S. I have said to all the girls, just like every business I’ve ever been a part of, going global is a little like going into a cave. You want to get to the other side because that’s where you are going, but the cave can be scary and dark until you start seeing light. And over the last couple of years, we’ve gone into the cave.
We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to be embarrassed, we’re going to say things the wrong way, but the end result is if the original mission of the LPGA is to empower women worldwide through the game of golf, we’ve got to go through the cave.
GGP: Do you see, then, merging sooner or later of the LPGA with any of the tours in Asia or Europe?
WHAN: I really don’t. And I say that with the appropriate asterisk, which is because I don’t mean it wouldn’t happen and maybe I’ll see that light. But I really think if you step back and say what would be best for the game of golf and women, I think the best thing, for me, is that the individual regions have a focused organization to grow golf in those regions, and I see the KLPGA as exactly what Korea needs and wants.
GGP: Is it reasonable to suggest that when golf gets to the Olympics (in less than six years), it’s going to be a bigger deal for the women than it is for the men?
WHAN: I have already said to our group that when we get to 2016, you have to plan that these girls are going to go a week early and maybe even stay a week late. This is going to be a cool event. If you say that Ai Miyazato, Jiyai Shin and Paula Creamer are going to be in Rio, while they are friends, they are also going to compete. But they will have a lot of fun together, too, because they are a tight group. But I don’t think you will see the private jet in and the private jet out. I think they are going to take it all in and they will be pretty comfortable in the entire global scope.
GGP: Yet your biggest “team” event is the Solheim Cup. And that is just Europe and the U.S. And that’s not global.
WHAN: Coming soon.
WHAN: You’re right. Your question is right. I know it and you know it. So you’re next question is what are you going to do about it, and my answer is, “Coming soon.”
GGP: That’s all you’re going to say?
WHAN: That’s all I can say.
GGP: If I ask John Solheim (head of Ping) that same question, would he say, “Coming soon” also?
WHAN: Probably not. I mean at the end of the day do I think the Solheim Cup needs to be tweaked? No. It is a powerful event. One of the things I love about golf is also our biggest challenge. That event has got history. You don’t want to mess with history. History is powerful. If you ask me whether or not there is room for something on the LPGA – and the nice thing about the LPGA is that if we wanted to have some sort of international event like we’re talking about, I don’t need help from 26 tours.
GGP: One of our columnists, Lewine Mair of Scotland, recently wrote a column suggesting that the dark side of the single-mindedness of the Korean women in golf is a burnout factor in their mid-to-late 20s. Do you see any of that?
WHAN: The one thing that I’ve got to pull the cover back on as commissioner is the ease of saying, “the Koreans.” Having a much closer look at it like I have in the last 12 months, I can’t use that term any more because Na Yeon Choi is so different from Jiyai Shin and Jiyai Shin is so different from Song Hee. When you mention the burnout factor, I think, “Yup, I can think of a couple of girls.” And, yes, they really need to relax. At 20 or 22 … I mean I can relate because at 20 or 22, I needed to relax.
But I couldn’t say that about the Koreans because I probably know of, say, 10 more (Koreans) that I love their balance. They’re having fun. At he end of the day, if they miss the cut, there are ones that will go putt until dark. But there are some that don’t and some that do. I think from the outside this is my problem. The LPGA hasn’t made sure that you all know them, and once you know them, it will be hard to put a blanket around them. It’s hard to put a blanket around the Americans, as well. Yes, I think there’s burnout but I don’t see it tied to a country or a culture. And shame on me and us at the LPGA because I think we’ve made it easy to say, “the Koreans.”
GGP: That same columnist, on this same subject, posited the idea that Michelle Wie may have gotten it right by going to college, not being in a hurry to get on the LPGA.
WHAN: As a parent, I look at her and say, if I had a superstar athlete, I would hope that she would have all the same kinds of opportunities that Michelle had – going to Stanford, not playing every tournament. I know that drives some of our sponsors nuts, but she has a more-limited schedule because she does more things. She really embraces the international travel. She’s sort of the new wave of LPGA star. She’s got sponsors from around the world on her hat and her jerseys. And, most importantly, if I ask Michelle Wie to do something that embraces young girls, she does it. I think that’s the coolest part.
GGP: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the No. 1 position in the Rolex World Rankings has been changing almost weekly?
WHAN: I hope it lasts another year or two. I know it won’t because it tends not to in sports. But I think it has created interest. I think the golf media has gotten comfortable with the idea that there is a regular No. 1, and you need that. Tiger was No. 1 a long time and Annika and Lorena were No. 1 for a long time. You don’t need that to hang your hat on.
GGP: Was there anything that the LPGA can learn from the last 12 months of Tiger Woods’ life?
WHAN: I think our athletes probably learned that there are no secrets. You’re not fooling anybody if you’re not fooling anybody. It’s just a matter of time. That’s a lesson that gets re-learned a lot.
GGP: Because of the global nature of your Tour and the growing shift in power geographically, would you be better served having your headquarters on the west coast, closer to Asia, rather than Daytona Beach in central Florida?
WHAN: Would we better off having our headquarters in L.A. or San Francisco? Having lived the last 12 years of my life in California, I’m a Californian and I love it there. I also know that it is not the easiest place in the world to do business. Californians say of course it is, we get up early. But it is different. You’re not really on anybody’s time zone. Would I love us to be in California? For personal reasons, I’d love it. Would it be the best business decision? It wouldn’t. So where would? At the end of the day I always say you need to be near your player base, and we have more players that live in Central Florida than anywhere else in the world.
GGP: Finally, how is the “female at birth only” controversy going to shake out in light of the attempts by Lana Lawless, a transgender former police officer, to gain playing privileges on the LPGA?
WHAN: I’ve learned a lot more about what transgenderal athlete means. I’ve also learned that the IOC, USGA, Ladies European Tour and others all allow for transgenderal athletes to compete. In fact, there’s a transgenderal athlete that competes today on the LET.
We have a constitution that says one of the qualifications to play on the LPGA is that you are female at birth. I don’t think anybody thought anything creatively about that back when it was written. But that’s what it says. So I don’t know that we needed a lawsuit to re-look at it. We are a membership organization and we are going to discuss it as a membership. We are in no hurry to discuss it because there is a lawsuit or not. I’ve never been driven by somebody else’s timeline. But we will discuss it during Tour Championship week. We have a players meeting four times a year and our next is at the Tour Championship.