GLADSTONE, N.J. (AP) — After 17 months on the job, LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan is well past the clueless stage.
The 46-year-old former business executive has gotten to know his players, his tournaments and his sponsors, and now he is looking to expand.
Or as he puts it, the LPGA Tour is in a ‘GROWTH’ spurt.
That means more tournaments in 2012, a greater commitment to current sponsors, and accepting what the LPGA is: a worldwide tour that isn’t apologizing for having a lot of Asian players, playing events overseas and not having more Americans.
“What we have is a global sport that is growing around the world, where young girls all over can have this dream,” Whan said Wednesday on the eve of the Sybase Match Play Championship at the Hamilton Farm Golf Club. “I am not going to do anything but embrace it.”
Since taking over in January 2010 after Carolyn Bivens was forced out, Whan has brought a much different approach to the tour, working to combine the interests of the golfers and the people who foot the bills for the tournaments.
He went to every LPGA tournament last year to learn. He’s repeating the process this year to build.
“This is where it is happening, where your players are playing, and your sponsors are spending their money,” Whan said.
If there is a major issue on the women’s tour, it’s a lack of tournaments.
There are only 24 official events this year, and only six have been played heading into this week’s match play event that has a limited field of 64 players.
There will be an unofficial event in Brazil next week and the Solheim Cup, or 26 events overall.
It’s the No. 1 item on Whan’s to-do list.
“It’s frustrating and a little embarrassing turning on the TV on Sunday and seeing someone playing golf and it’s not us,” Whan said. “We’ve got to fix that. It’s why I came. I said to people I have been blessed with a few skills in business, and one of them wasn’t patience.
“I hear people say I like where we are headed and the transition feels good,” the former Proctor & Gamble executive said. “But like I tell my kids, sixth grade is the last grade they give you a grade for effort. Let’s not talk about our effort. Let’s get some tournaments on the board.”
Whan refused to disclose how many events were planned for 2012, admitting he didn’t want to upstage Sybase this week.
“I would be surprised if we had the same number of events in 2012 as we had in 2011,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you won’t lose an event or two. As you know there is a significant amount of international interest and what I have said to my group is that I’ll expand internationally, but only as we expand the U.S. I like our mix. I don’t want to wake up and have four tournaments in the U.S. and 44 around the world. I want to keep this as a home base.”
In looking back on his first year with the LPGA, Whan said he noticed that the tour was more worried about the business it didn’t have rather than making sure its current sponsors were satisfied.
His response was to enlist his players’ help.
Every Tuesday before an event, the players are given a customer profile that describes who is paying for the week with bullet points about the business, what it does and pictures of its key personnel.
John Chen of Sybase is focused this week and players were told things they might say with a microphone in front of them, much like NASCAR drivers do with their hats, soft drinks and automotive products.
“It’s a little thing, but I have this thing on tour where I talk about ‘GROWTH’ and each letter stands for something and the ‘T’ stands for thank you,” Whan said. “I always say when somebody hands you a check on the 18th green, especially a check that is larger than you ever thought you would make playing the game, remember you can thank whoever you want, your caddie, your dad, your coach, Jesus, but make sure you thank the person on the bottom of the check first.”
The other letters in GROWTH are just as important to Whan.
The G stands for getting involved, stepping up and doing something if there is something you don’t like about the events or things on tour.
The R is to reach out and touch the fans. Make their day.
O is for being open.
“It’s a Mike Whan warning,” he said. “I am not a status quo guy. I like to shake it up and get people talking about us again.”
The W is worldwide tour … “and get over it. It’s the LPGA’s greatest competitive advantage.”
After T is the H, or have fun.
“If you ask fans when they are having fun watching you, it’s when you are,” Whan said. “It’s when you are nervous on the first tee, when you high-five your caddie or tear up thinking about the people who got you here. Be yourself.”
Looking forward, Whan is a hopeful. He believes the economy is improving and his tour has something to offer sponsors.
“I think if we were a 30-tournament tour we would be delivering great fields at every event,” he said. “Can we get from 25 to 30 in one year? I don’t know, but like I said, patience is not my strong suit. So if we went from 25 to 27 next year, it would be a nice direction, but I would be frustrated. At the same time playing 35 is doable, but you might also be apologizing for some fields. I think somewhere between 30 and 35 is a sweet spot.”