LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan has done a lot for the LPGA over his six-plus years at its helm, not the least of which was announced earlier this month: a "strategic alliance" with the PGA Tour, geared toward growing both the men's and women's games.
The two tours have committed to formally working together to examine several different areas of the game where key growth can occur, including television distribution, improved digital coverage and the potential for joint events. While the two sides have leaned on each other before for the good of golf, the move announced on March 4 is unprecedented in size, says Whan.
"Fifteen years ago, there were strong stakeholders in the game but they all were sort of doing their own thing," Whan said in an interview with GOLF.com. "If you look, really in the last four or five years, the biggest stakeholders in the game are all working together: Drive, Chip and Putt, Get Golf Ready, Girls Golf, The First Tee — these are all programs that we're working on together to help grow the game."
With the continued investment in these programs, Whan has seen his own tour grow a significant amount. According to the commissioner, the LPGA has grown 100% in television coverage, 60% in prize money and 50% in the number of tour events. The collaboration between the LPGA, USGA and Girls Golf has exploded the bracket of girls under 18 playing the game by 900%.
"Right now, it’s about 80-20 men to women in the sport, and I believe it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that in 10-15 years, this is a 50-50 sport," says Whan. "If we’re going to grow the game, it’s not going to come through male growth, it’s going to come through female growth."
“From our collaboration in bringing golf back as an Olympic sport as joint members of the International Golf Federation to our cooperation in helping to grow the game of golf as part of the World Golf Foundation, our two organizations have had a long history of working together for the common good of our sport,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in a statement. “Extending our relationship with the LPGA into these new areas is a natural extension of this work and collaboration.”
But what fans and media are most likely to latch on to is the prospect of seeing both PGA Tour and LPGA stars tee it up in formal competition together. Reminiscent of the 1960s' Golfing Battle of the Sexes starring Mickey Wright and Barbara Romack vs. Arnold Palmer and Dow Finsterwald (which, as Michael Bamberger notes in an earlier column, the ladies won), Whan is convinced that nearly all of his players would jump at the chance to compete against the men, on the same course, for legitimate prize money. Imagine Bubba Watson teeing off right before Lexi Thompson, and Paula Creamer hitting a shot right before Rickie Fowler, Whan mused. If you're a fan of the game of golf, merely that image is tantalizing entertainment.
We asked, but the 'Commish' wouldn't budge on revealing his ideal match.
If LPGA stars can agree on anything, it's the incredible access that fans have to the women on tour. Stacy Lewis, Paula Creamer, Jessica Korda and others have shared that one of the things they love about playing on the LPGA is the ability to really get to know their fans. On the other hand, the PGA Tour is a little more tight-lipped. That's not to say that the likes of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Fowler don't know their fans on personal levels, but the LPGA prides itself on its openness and accessibility. Whan assured that the alliance with the PGA Tour would not affect that treasured characteristic of the LPGA.
"I wouldn’t read too much into ‘partnering’ with the PGA Tour," Whan says. "It’s not like we’re going to become one tour, we’re not going to become one organization, we’re not sharing board seats or ownership rights. Getting together is not going to change our personality or theirs, it’s not going to change how we treat the fans or theirs. We’re just going to get together and say, ‘Hey, is there an opportunity or two where we can play together and create something really special for the fans?'"
This fan has high hopes. Both the women and the men rock their respective tours, with young talent abundant on both. Wouldn't it be great to see them showcased, both equally and together?