BROOKLINE, MASSACHUSETTS | In speaking at his maiden U.S. Open media conference, USGA CEO Mike Whan could not duck questions about the upstart LIV Golf Invitational Series. In fact, the rival Saudi-funded tour was the primary topic of every pre-tournament media session last week at The Country Club, site of the 122nd U.S. Open.
“I am saddened by what’s happening in the professional game, mostly as a fan because I like watching the best players in the world come together and play, and this (LIV) is going to fracture that,” Whan said on Wednesday. “I have heard that this (LIV) is good for the game. At least from my outside view right now, it looks like it is good for a few folks playing the game, but I am struggling with how this is good for the game.”
When asked whether he could foresee a day when “breakaway” players will find it harder to get into the U.S. Open, which the USGA administrates but is part of the PGA Tour schedule, Whan replied simply, “Yes.” But the quandary is not a simple situation.
Would the USGA side with the PGA Tour and bar suspended tour players from the Open? Would that diminish the “open” nature of what the late Arnold Palmer used to call “the national open championship?” And what about players such as Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, who hold extended exemptions because of their past U.S. Open victories?
Whan, 57, led his address with his now-frequently spoken observation that the 127-year-old USGA brand has “an awareness problem. We are going to change the United States Golf Association into ‘unify, showcase, govern, and advance.’ “
To a degree, this issue will take care of itself. Without past-champion status, players will rely on Official World Golf Ranking points to gain entry to golf’s four major championships. Those points probably are not going to be made available to LIV players for at least a year. As a result, the world rankings for LIV players are going to plummet quickly, to the point at which they no longer will have easy access. Few of those players likely would attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open or the Open Championship.
The majors, including the U.S. Open, may be the only tournaments that gather the world’s best golfers in the new world of LIV Golf, as Whan prefers.
It is a vexing issue with which Whan and his Executive Committee will have to wrestle. Time is not necessarily on their side. In the not-too-distant future, they will have to determine the qualifying criteria for the 2023 U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club.
To achieve that goal, Whan intends to rely on what he calls “BBL: big, bold, leadership ideas.” Foremost among those ideas:
Water conservation: Whan cited the concept of “15, 30, 45” to address the growing water crisis in the West. “In the next 15 years, what if we committed $30 million to reduce how much water a golf course needs by 45 percent?” he said. Acknowledging the enormity of the problem, Whan said, “I’d be happy to sit up here and apologize if we only reduce water needs by 30 percent in the next 15 years.”
National development program: Whan intends to create a national team of 12-17-year-olds to build a pipeline to the professional game. The concept is deeply informed by his 12 years as LPGA commissioner. He saw how the American women were disadvantaged by their international counterparts, many of whom grew up in national programs. “We really believe that the USGA’s role is to build a pipeline of U.S. golfers that is not about where you grew up, or how much your mom or dad makes, not about what country club sponsored you. It’s about whether you have the talent, the interest, and the dedication to be a part of a Team USA program.”
USGA’s expansion to Pinehurst: Beginning in 2024, about 50-60 USGA employees will be based at the resort in Pinehurst, North Carolina, but Whan will not be one of them. “I am not moving to Pinehurst,” said Whan, who is based at USGA headquarters in Liberty Corner, New Jersey. Whan spoke about the USGA’s concept of anchor sites – in addition to Pinehurst, California’s Pebble Beach and iconic Pennsylvania clubs Oakmont and Merion are the others – and said that the idea is misunderstood. “It is not the beginning of a USGA rota,” he said in a comparison to how the R&A rotates its Open Championship among a handful of sites in the U.K.
Amateur endowments: Whan disclosed an idea that has been a popular topic in the amateur game: a plan to endow the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup biennial matches. Whan has been fundraising for several months, trying to raise $10 million through individual donations that would be matched by the USGA. The goal is to “make sure that no matter what happened economically, those amateur championships never go away.” There is no timeline for the concept to be developed.
The distance issue: Not much progress has been made to tamp down on the increasing distances that elite players hit the ball, often rendering some of the game’s classic courses to be obsolete for championships, he said. Whan teased an idea that the USGA is working about the potential of freeing up innovation space for the manufacturers “to create a ball that would actually be better for low swing speeds.” The USGA is targeting the distances of elite players while hoping not to affect the distances of recreational players. In the manufacturing community, some observers think the notion is a fantasy and defies the laws of physics, but Whan remains undaunted. Something is going to happen here, sooner rather than later.
Whan clearly is a man with a change-driven agenda, but he must manage amid a complex, uncontrollable outside factor: LIV Golf. He has a lot on his plate, but he would not have it any other way.