NAPLES, FLORIDA | He always makes the point that he works at the pleasure of his members. Whenever the subject of Mike Whan’s tenure as LPGA commissioner comes up, he deflects, telling anyone who will listen that the membership can relieve him of his duties at any time and the LPGA in all its forms – tour, teaching professionals, foundation, and girls golf program – will be just fine.
“When I took the job originally the board suggested a four-year term,” Whan said. “I suggested three years. My point to them at the time was that we were going through a tough period and I said, ‘Don’t let me at the end of the two years tell you that we’re so close to the turnaround.’ At the end of the day, have a short leash on whoever you put in (as) commissioner because you don’t have time. If I haven't made a significant difference in 24 months, let’s agree that the next year will be my last year.”
That was 10 years ago. And he just renewed for an unspecified period.
“I don’t think long term,” Whan said. “I think long term is three years and I think even a three-year plan you’ve got to write in pencil because the world just changes too much. Streaming wasn’t a thing (10 years ago). High definition was the big talk of TV when I started. It's amazing how fast things move.
“I made a three-year commitment when I started. We kind of rolled that into a four-year commitment after the second year, then I extended essentially through ’20. If I’m being honest with you, I never expected to be here in ’20 even when I signed the deal to be here in ’20. My job is like a head coach. One day I’m going to come to work and the name on the door is going to be different. I just won’t know that they changed the name on the door (until I get there). But that’s OK.”
If Whan is a head coach, he’s Vince Lombardi with the empathy and kindness of Dusty Baker thrown in. He’s just as enthusiastic about his job now as he was the day he showed up. And, regardless of what you think of the LPGA, there is no greater champion of women’s golf, and no more dynamic catalyst for the advancement of women in sports.
“I think you guys know this isn't an act,” he said. “I love this. I love these athletes. I love my teammates, and if they want me to be here in a head-coaching role, I’m going to keep coming in. When they’re done with me, I’m not going to be offended by that. And as I’ve said to our board many times, you’re going to find somebody younger, faster, and more caffeinated than me. And when you do, just give them the baton.
“I feel comfortable now that whenever it ends, it ends. I’ve never done the job to keep the job. I just think that’s a terrible way to keep your job. I’ve done a lot of things to lose the job and so far they haven’t taken it from me. I promise you, you’ll never have somebody make more mistakes than me. But if at the end of each year, you just count up the number of times we’ve gotten on base versus the number of times we’ve struck out, you’ll like the batting average. You’ll just hate of number of times I strike out painfully in public.”
Players (and occasionally the media) criticize. Purses, while the largest in the tour’s history, still lag well behind the PGA Tour but, as Whan points out, with a quarter of the television audience, it’s hard to make additional demands. But he still makes the case for gender equality.
“Live your values,” he said, emphasizing the message he sends to CEOs around the world. “If you’re going to say something is a value, it has to be in everything you do. Don’t call (equality) a value statement unless you’re going to hold that mirror up to everything. You can’t just decide it’s a value statement and it really works for this employee meeting, but it doesn't work for this marketing meeting, it doesn't work for this sponsorship discussion. If (equality) is what's important to you as a leader, then it needs to be important to you in everything you do.
“My early days, it would be frustrating to walk into a boardroom and read the company value statement hanging on the wall and walk in and realize that it’s not the value that’s coming out of that meeting. My point is, if you think that one of the most important things you stand for is sending an equality message, you can’t just send it in an internal memo. You can’t spend $400 million (the cumulative total of sports marketing dollars spent in the United States) that impacts the world and think that’s not your largest value reflection. You’ve got to live your values.
“Not everybody is going to agree with me. But I do think it’s coming. I’ve met investors in the last four years, mega-investors, the people who back companies, not just start-up companies, but when you need money, the people that you go to. And there are investors now who will only invest now in companies that have these kind of values reflected in everything they do. And when money stops flowing to you because you’re not walking the talk, the world is going to change.”
“If you think that one of the most important things you stand for is sending an equality message, you can’t just send it in an internal memo.”
It’s changing in large part because of Mike Whan. On Sunday, CME Group Tour Championship winner Sei Young Kim walked away with $1.5 million, the largest single check in women’s golf history. This wasn’t because of a demand Whan made. He never asks a check-writer to do more. It’s because of the culture he has helped create and the values he continues to espouse.
“If we unlock a couple of $500 million marketing budgets that have never really looked at female golf as anything other than viewership numbers and cable TV and hospitality, and they start thinking about what it really means to their employees … ” Whan said, his voice trailing off.
A few minutes later he was up and out, on his way to Spain for a meeting with the players of the Ladies European Tour about a proposed partnership.
“I'm not sure how they feel about that, but they'll get a chance to hear from me on Tuesday night,” Whan said. “The LPGA board and the LET board have both unanimously voted that we would like to move forward with a joint venture between the two of us. But at the end of the day, the LET – no different from the LPGA – is run by its players, so the players will get the final vote.
“It's literally a 50/50 joint venture that we're proposing, six members of a board from our side and six members of a board from their side. And all proceeds stay in Europe. We can put money into the LET, but we can't take money back out. I want to make sure the (Ladies) European Tour players know that this is not some American growth strategy. I'm not expecting to make money off the LET.
“If you read the mission of the LPGA, it’s to provide women the opportunity to pursue their dreams in the game of golf, period. That’s the whole statement. As I said to our board, I don’t see a boundary or a fence around that statement. It doesn’t say in America, doesn't say in North America, doesn’t say in countries where you think the opportunity is greatest. So I said to my board, I think we should do this because we can. And I think it’s our responsibility. Our founders would have done it if they would have had this ability, so why shouldn’t we?”
That, in a nutshell, is why Whan is the winningest coach in all of women’s sports.