Michael Whan’s legacy as LPGA commissioner will be judged by the number of tournaments he can put on the schedule and the size of the purses, but last week at the Bell Micro Classic in Mobile the focus was elsewhere. Four months into a job for which he uprooted his family and moved across the country, Whan was amid a confused and heartbroken LPGA reeling from the mysterious death of one of its own, 25-year-old tour player Erica Blasberg.
On the eve of the opening round, before a membership of golfers from 28 countries, Whan addressed the group in an emotional memorial service at the Magnolia Grove clubhouse. He soon realized that he was standing before a sisterÂhood. “When I got the job, Juli Inkster told me, ‘Welcome to the family,’ but I didn’t realize what that meant until the memorial service,” Whan says. “It was like 300 people hugging me at the same time. We are a business, and these are people making a living, but they also lean on each other, and they need each other. It was hard not to walk out of there and not feel closer to everybody, not be a little more observant and pay more attention to each other.”
Blasberg, who joined the LPGA tour in 2005 and made 50 of 91 cuts, with a career-best eighth-place finish at the SBSÂ Open in 2008, was found dead in her Henderson, Nev., home on May 9 after police responded to a 911 call. A spokesman for the Henderson Police Department classified the case as an ongoing “death investigation,” and the Clark County Coroner’s office says it could take four to six weeks to determine the cause of death.
The loss of a peer in the prime of her life cast a pall over the normal business of tournament golf, but the players did their best to cope. Irene Cho, Blasberg’s closest friend on tour, shot a 69 in the opening round, kissing her eb wristband after each of her four birdies. Golfers and caddies wore purple ribbons on their caps and shirts, and hugs on the 18th green lasted longer than usual. Their world would not be normal, not for a while anyway, a reality lost on no one.
“Erica’s passing,” says Lorie Kane, “it takes your breath away.”
Seeing the 45-year-old Whan navigate a difficult situation further underscored what has been a growing consensus among the golfers. “I feel like we finally have the right commissioner,” says tour veteran Michele Redman. Adds Inkster, noting a significant change from Whan’s predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, “There is no grumbling from the players. And if he’s got that, he’s living large.”
The endorsements do not erase the myriad challenges facing Whan and the tour, whose schedule has dwindled from 34 events two years ago to 25 in 2010, but the newfound unity might make it easier to overcome them. Five months into the calendar year the Bell Micro was only the third LPGA tournament played in the U.S., which, depending on your point of view, means that LPGA players are either global superstars or weary vagabonds. The truth lies somewhere in between.
“A lot of sports entities look at us and say, ‘We’d like to look like that,’ ” Whan says. “As I said to the [players], companies that have a global outlook are all better off for it. Our viewership numbers prove we have fans coming from everyÂwhere because we have players and sponsors coming from everywhere.”
That globalization has given the tour sponsor options outside the U.S. and its struggling economy, but the branching out hasn’t been without travails. Unlike the PGA Tour, with its neatly packaged West Coast, Florida and Texas swings, the LPGA zigzags around the globe, and doing so can be brutal on a golf game. In February and March the LPGA held events in Thailand, Singapore and Carlsbad, Calif. In April the tour went to Rancho Mirage, Calif., Jamaica and Mexico. On the docket for May? Mobile, Gladstone, N.J., and Rio de Janeiro.
Inkster, 49, recalls her early years on tour, loading a van with her kids and her clubs and driving from tournament to tournament, an impossibility these days. “It’s really hard — the play, stop, play, stop,” she says. “I would really like to have five or six more tournaments, especially domestic tournaments. Hopefully that will come around. Everybody’s telling [Whan] that we want more domestic tournaments, but the big companies are global and they want both.”
Says Kane, “We do well in small markets, and we should go back to those markets — Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, Rochester — if they’ll have us. I believe we can play in the big markets, but I also believe you never leave the markets that got you started.”
With its earnest billboards (wow wie!) and down-home marshal placards (hush, y’all!), Mobile falls into the small-market category. The first event since Lorena Ochoa retired as the No.Â 1 player in the world showcased the tour at its very best, even as it grieved. Natalie Gulbis, Jiyai Shin and Lisa Strom welcomed a Girl Scout troop. Brittany Lincicome won the tour’s home run derby at Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the BayBears, the DoubleÂ A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, in an event put on by Bell Micro. When a fan asked Lincicome on Twitter why she was wearing a pink wristband, she answered that it was for Blasberg.
“Wherever we’ve been as a tour, we’ve always felt a connection with our fans and our sponsors,” says Wendy Ward. “That’s who we need to concentrate on and maintain, and that’s how things grow.”Adds Kane, “We’re not the PGA Tour, [but] we bring a lot of things that the PGA Tour might not have. We have good personalities. Our pro-ams are different because we play next to our partners. Pro-am days are about me entertaining our corporate clients.”
To that end, before the start of every tournament Whan e-mails the players a two-page customer-profile sheet with details about the event sponsors.”If we want to play more often, we have to understand our customers,” Whan says. “We have to understand the reasons they put on LPGA events. For some it’s hometown pride, for some it’s hospitality clients, for some it’s television eyeballs, and for some it’s a charity close to many of them. Every one is a little different. If we are only about playing golf, we’ll be out of business.”
The golf, in fact, seems to be the least of Whan’s worries, even with the retirement of Ochoa at age 29 coming on the heels of Annika Sorenstam’s stepping away at the end of the 2008 season. To him, this is when it gets “wild and fun,” when many players can vie for the crown of world No.Â 1. He had a point at the Bell Micro, which was blessed with a crackling leader board. Even if conventional wisdom says the quickest route to a healthy LPGA is a spate of Michelle Wie wins (she made the cut on the number at Mobile and finished last), Whan takes a different approach. “I don’t choose the next great superstar, nor do the media or superagents,” Whan says. “Tiger [Woods] became Tiger because he won 33 percent of the time. The next great women of the LPGA, they control that.”
As the golf plays out, Whan will focus on the business side, which includes adding tournaments for 2011 and finding a long-term sponsor for the LPGA Championship. (“Majors, for me, are like Supreme Court justices,” he says. “As commissioner you don’t get to appoint many of them, and they should last a long time.”) These are the challenges that will shape the LPGA’s future and, in many ways, Whan’s legacy. Last week, in Mobile, on a rolling golf course in a quiet town, Whan took his first step. He became part of the family.