Questions for ... LPGA commissioner Michael Whan

Questions for … LPGA commissioner Michael Whan

Michael Whan would like the LPGA to play at least 31 events per year.
Tina Fineberg/AP

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It’s been more than a year since Mike Whan began his tenure as LPGA Tour commissioner, and he still has plenty of tough questions to answer. How do players make a living? How many tournaments will be added? Can a 16-year-old join the Tour? I sat down with Whan at this week’s U.S. Women’s Open for answers to these questions and more.

How do you feel about the fact that a lot of your players aren’t making enough money to survive?
You’ve got to be in the top 80 on the money list to make it a career now. We’re just getting into our big-money part of the season, with some big purses, so that’s great. But we don’t play enough for journeymen to make a living out here. That’s embarrassing, and I want that to change. Nobody wants to play 24 events a year. Nobody.

Looking back, how did the financial crisis most affect the LPGA?
We’re a small business, and we were affected like all small businesses. We had a lot of customers say, I’m going to not be a sports sponsor for a few years. So we lost a lot, and unlike the PGA Tour, we don’t have $100 million sitting around to prop up tournaments while we look for sponsors.

What have you tried to change about the LPGA since you took over?
The LPGA got a little too focused on the business we didn’t have. We spent all of our time working on new business, but we neglected to attend to our current customers. Now we plan to generate new business by taking care of the customers we have.

How do you do that?
When I started, one of the first things I created was the Customer Profile Sheet. It’s a two-page document that we produce every week and give to the players. It has detailed information about the sponsor, the venue, the history of the event. We detail the sponsor’s business, the chief executives. We even include pictures, and we put down the names and addresses of sponsor contacts to send thank-you notes. This week we have pictures of key USGA officials. We give it to the players every Tuesday and ask them to read them.

Have the profiles been helpful?
The first week we did this, at the 2010 Kia Classic, Christina Kim, in the second round, was walking from the 9th green to the 10th tee. She’d read the sheet. Going to the tee, she recognized Mike Sprague, Kia’s vice president of marketing for North America. Christina went up to Mike and introduced herself. He was thrilled. That’s the kind of involvement and gratitude we want to show our customers.

Do you have a relationship with Tim Finchem?
I talk to Tim once a month. He’s just a good human being. The first time we met, he said, “Call me whenever — I mean whenever — you need to.” That means a lot. We have very different businesses, but it’s good for us to talk.

How much do you travel?
I haven’t missed a tournament since I took this job 18 months ago. I’ve been a sponsor before, in my old jobs, so I know what it’s like to write a big check and wonder about the return on investment. I need to be where sponsors are spending their money. I can’t be at home asking on email, “How are we doing?” I need to be there. The biggest thing I’ve tried to do in this job is make us 100-percent customer focused.

Anything you’d change about the job?
I fly regular, just like you, which is fine, but it takes a toll, and not just on my back. I have three teenage boys at home, and when I go out, I have to leave a day early and it takes a day to get home. That’s valuable time I lose at work and with my family.

How many events will the LPGA have in five to 10 years?
Thirty-one to 33 would be ideal. The top players play about 25 times, so if we play too many events, sponsors will not be happy when they don’t see the top names.

What are your expectations for playing the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open the week after the men at Pinehurst?
It’s an exciting opportunity. Heck, I hope the golf course is still breathing!

Could this lead to future LPGA-PGA Tour partner events?
I’ve told Tim [Finchem] that it would be nice to find a place where we both could play a regular event together. Tim agrees. But the logistics aren’t easy. But he’s a willing partner, so we’ll see.

Describe the process for granting Alexis Thompson a waiver.
We didn’t give her a waiver to become an LPGA member. She can go to Q school, and if she gets through that, then she’ll be an LPGA member. I still struggle with the decision. But she’s a unique talent, and I think she can handle it. Do I see a pipeline of young players in her position? No. Still, she’ll be a bit of a test case. We’ll see what happens.

What plans do you have for expansion in Asia?
We’ll have staff there within a couple of years. Now, we send Sean Pyun, a Korean who works in our tournament business office, to Korea once every quarter. I’ve made seven trips to Korea. It’s just a big market for us. Even our U.S.-based sponsors want to work in Asia. Naturally Fresh, the orange juice maker, sponsored a Futures Tour event, but they also handed out samples at an LPGA tournament in Thailand. We need to have a real presence in Asia.

Who’s been your biggest mentor?
No question, Charlie Meachem. We talk at least once a week. He’s phenomenal. There aren’t too many people I can call who’ve been where we are, where I am, and have the patience to help and the expertise to know exactly what to say. We share the passion for customer focus. Plus, he’s slow and methodical, and I’m hyperactive. So we balance out each other.

Are you comfortable that you’ve helped get the LPGA on more solid footing?
No. No way. I don’t think I’ll be comfortable when we’re playing 31 or 33 events a year. We deserve much better. My job is to help us get more. I have to help the LPGA and these amazing women athletes get what they deserve.