NEW YORK | Mike Whan was appointed chief executive officer of the USGA last February to be an agent of change.
On the seventh day of the first full calendar year of his tenure he began to deliver on that promise.
A bright sunny January day on the West side of Manhattan saw Whan proudly announcing the U.S. Women’s Open will – beginning this June at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club – have a presenting sponsor. ProMedica, a healthcare provider based in Toledo, Ohio, has agreed to partner with the USGA to help elevate the Women’s Open to previously unforeseen heights for the next 10 years.
For a tradition-bound organization like the USGA, calling this a historic day understates the significance of the announcement. It has meaning well beyond just women’s professional golf, and it affirms that this no longer is your parents’ USGA.
ProMedica’s investment enables the USGA to raise the purse of the Women’s Open immediately to $10 million in 2022, almost double what it was last year and by $3 million the largest purse in the women’s professional game. It also will result in the single largest winner’s check in the history of women’s golf: $1.8 million to the champion at Pine Needles.
To put that in context, just three women earned more than $1.8 million playing on the LPGA Tour in all of 2021.
These are mind-blowing numbers, particularly for a player like two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion Juli Inkster, who was on hand for the announcement. She made the first of her 35 U.S. Women’s Open appearances in 1978, when the purse was $100,000 and the winner took home all of $15,000.
ProMedica’s involvement does not, however, change the bottom line of the championship. Whan said the U.S. Women’s Open is still an “investment,” one that is reported to lose $9 million a year, but one that the USGA executive committee clearly is comfortable with.
Although specific financial aspects of this deal were not revealed, it is likely the first presenting partner of a USGA championship warrants one of the largest deals in the association’s history. As is customary in such partnerships, it includes an agreed-upon amount of advertising inventory and exposure on NBC Sports and its related properties, including Golf Channel. No sports marketing agencies were involved in crafting the partnership.
ProMedica may not be the first corporation you think of when you contemplate national golf sponsorship suspects. But it has been a player in the game of golf for a while. Most recently, it was an important partner to the Solheim Cup, staged last September in the company’s Toledo hometown at the Inverness Club. And in that town, ProMedica has contributed significant resources – with time, talent and treasure – for a new First Tee facility, one that quickly has become among the most successful of its kind in just a matter of months.
Discussions ensued between the USGA and ProMedica during the summer and into early fall. It was October when a delegation of USGA officials, including recently appointed chief commercial officer Jon Podany, met with ProMedica executives in Toledo for a long day and evening of hashing out terms of the proposed partnership.
But ProMedica’s investment in an LPGA tournament last year got chief executive officer Randy Oostra considering a bigger stage in golf for the company. It stepped up to sponsor the first LPGA Drive On Championship, a series of smaller purse events crafted on the fly by the LPGA during the COVID-19 period and designed to provide playing opportunities for the membership. Conversations took place with the LPGA about a louder megaphone to voice ProMedica’s mission and purpose, ideally something with national exposure at a rotating site with a network television component. Succeeding ANA as the sponsor of the first women’s major in the spring was floated, but it didn’t check enough of ProMedica’s boxes to warrant serious consideration.
Meanwhile, for the past four years, the USGA had been considering adding a commercial sponsorship element to the U.S. Women’s Open, not so much as to offset costs of the championship but to increase the purse, perhaps dramatically. Conversations had taken place with numerous interested parties in the course of time, some of them very deep. At one point, the USGA went so far as to consult then-LPGA commissioner Whan about the idea of commercial sponsorship of its Women’s Open. Whan liked the idea so much that he offered to help the USGA secure a presenting sponsor.
It was into that situation Whan stepped when he became CEO of the USGA on July 1, 2021. He had just come off a staggeringly successful 12-year run at the LPGA, he had a pre-existing relationship with ProMedica and Oostra due to the company’s Solheim Cup support and his reputation as a champion of women’s sport had long since been solidified.
Discussions ensued between the USGA and ProMedica during the summer and into early fall. It was October when a delegation of USGA officials, including recently appointed chief commercial officer Jon Podany, met with ProMedica executives in Toledo for a long day and evening of hashing out terms of the proposed partnership. Podany was Whan’s longtime first lieutenant at the LPGA, and when he and Whan came out of that meeting, they were confident they had a deal. The contract was signed right before the end of the year.
Whan told his executive committee that “this is what mega-progress feels like. It makes you uncomfortable. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.” Having already vetted the idea across several years, it didn’t take long for the executive committee to give Whan the green light.
This announcement is not intended to be precedent-setting, as there are no current plans to add presenting sponsorships to other USGA championships.
“It’s not part of the strategic plan at this point,” said Podany.
However, the veteran sports marketing executive has been around long enough to know that you never say never.
This sea change isn’t universally welcome by all the various constituencies within the big tent that is the USGA, including its headquarters in New Jersey. It will take some getting used to by those constituencies. But it is a harbinger of what is to come in the Whan era. This is why he got the job. The message from the USGA’s executive committee is simple: Get on board and get over it.
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