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Whan Walks A Fine Line With Teenagers

SINGAPORE | In 2010, Mike Whan had no more than a couple of petitions from teenagers wanting to join the LPGA Tour before they reached 18. By last year, that figure was up to 10 – and judging by the way the 2013 season has started, the trend seems set to continue. To recap, 15-year-old Lydia Ko added the 2013 Women’s New Zealand Open to her 2012 Canadian Women’s Open title. As for the 17-year-old Ariya Jutanugarn, she finished second in the Volvik RACV Ladies Masters and the Honda Thailand LPGA. Of all the petitions he has considered thus far, Whan only has acceded to requests from Jessica Korda and Lexi Thompson. He gave Korda the nod because she would be turning 18 before the next season was under way; and he approved the then 16-year-old Thompson because she had won the Navistar Classic. (Ko, incidentally, has not been in touch, while Whan said a somewhat controversial ‘No’ to Jutanugarn when she was 16.) The reason the CEO asks most youngsters to wait is because he believes they are not ready. For those coming from afar, he must make a judgment on how they will react to spending so much time away from home. Also, he has to speculate on how they will cope with the Tour’s social side. “Forty per cent of it,” he advises, “is what happens outside the ropes. It’s about talking to the media, conversing with sponsors and being able to hold your own in a pro-am situation, an area where the LPGA has a competitive advantage.” For the most part, Whan believes that a girl should finish her schooling and combine high level amateur golf with a college career before teeing up on Tour. “College is where a player will grow up,” he contends. “There’s no rush when it comes to professional golf. It’s rare for a player to peak before the age of 20. Quite often girls play their best golf in their later 20s or their 30s – and even beyond that.” But always the CEO keeps an open mind. He fully appreciates that what is best for one player is not necessarily right for another. He is, for instance, in awe of Michelle Wie and what she has achieved in spite of the lak she has had to take across her sometimes turbulent career-path. “There have been so many negative stories written about Michelle but virtually none about where she is today,” he says. “I wasn’t around when she came on the scene but the girl who has come out of the pipeline is truly remarkable. She’s had the last laugh. “There are lots of us, myself included, who would love to have a degree from Stanford on our résumés. Michele’s not only got a Stanford degree, but she got it while playing the Tour. It’s unbelievable. “Some people,” he continued, “have a distorted idea about what matters. Life isn’t all about winning majors. In fact, I’ve known lots of winners who were positively miserable. “Michele’s a joyful kid. She’s happy, she’s passionate and, above all, she’s well-rounded. If I were her father I’d be proud and I’ve told her parents as much.” Whan’s Asian reared players at one point posed very different questions from their American sisters – and here Whan suggests that the LPGA has had as much to learn as the visitors themselves. Indeed, he does not mind saying that had he been at the helm at the time of Caroline Bivens, his predecessor, he might well have come up with something akin to her abrasive insistence on the newcomers’ need to learn English. “Looking back,” he says, “there was actually no need for anyone to say anything. The Koreans hardly took any time to realise for themselves that that was what was best for them. They were slow to put their English into practice, but only because no one in Asia likes to do anything less than well.” Whan realised as much when one of his Korean parishioners revealed at the 16th hole of a pro-am that she was nervous about the press conference that lay ahead. “I remember saying to myself, ‘If she’s as nervous as this on the pro-am day, what must it be like for her having to talk to the press towards the end of the week?’” said the CEO. It was in the wake of that incident that he made arrangements with the Language Training Centre to have a presence on the Tour at all times. “Our golfers are all over-achievers who don’t sit well in a rain break,” Whan said. “They need to have something to do. Learning languages works for Asians and Americans alike – and they’re happy to pay for the lessons themselves.” (Paula Creamer and Beatriz Recari are just two to have tried their hand at Japanese.) There have been player comments about the zig-zag route of the 2013 Tour. But the fact that the CEO is on the right road overall was amply demonstrated at last week’s HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore. Plenty of male professionals would have had a rude awakening at the extent to which the LPGA product slotted so seamlessly into this state-of-the-art world hub.


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