LPGA boss Whan makes progress on and off the course

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michael Whan

Ann Arbor – Michael Whan sat back in his chair at Travis Pointe Country Club on Wednesday with a smile on his face and enthusiasm in his voice.

It was easy to see why the commissioner of the LPGA, fresh off 18 holes of play during the Volvik Championship Pro-Am, was feeling good. The Tour he took over in 2010 looks far different than the one today.

Back then, the LPGA was in a freefall. Television ratings were plummeting and sponsors were bailing out, leaving just 24 tournaments on the schedule. More than six years later with the inaugural Volvik Championship set to begin today, the LPGA has made a remarkable turnaround.

This year there are 34 tournaments and purses have jumped to more than $64 million, a bump of more than $20 million from 2010. And TV viewers are following all over the world. Whan said when he took over, there was about 200 hours of programming available. Now it’s 450 hours with roughly 150 countries watching tournaments each week.

The buzz is returning around the tour, and Ann Arbor is just the latest city to join the club.

“We can see that the tour is just growing, it's always just growing outwards,” said Lydia Ko, the top-ranked player in the world. “I think we've got to thank our commissioner for the amazing job he's done.”

It’s a resurgence few saw coming, but one Whan thinks is pretty simple.

When he took over there were, in his opinion, far too many people worried about the wrong things. Pin placements, TV stands and rough length were focused on and not enough on growing the game.

“It’s about finding where the check writers want to be or finding people that are passionate to bring it to the market,” Whan said. “I remember saying (when I took over), ‘Guys, I haven’t been a commissioner my whole life but I’ve been a sponsor my whole life and I’ve never worried once about the length of the rough.’ Check writers want to know, ‘What are you doing for me, what are you doing for my customers?’ ”

It’s the approach that led the LPGA to the Grand Rapids area more than two years ago with the Meijer LPGA Classic and it’s what brought them to Ann Arbor. As Whan said, it wasn’t about just looking at a map and finding a place, it was a group with a plan.

That was Keith Karbo and KC Crain. They wanted to bring golf to the area and approached Whan. One look at Travis Pointe and Whan was convinced it was the right market for the LPGA.

“This feels like us,” Whan said. “It’s a community. In my pro-am I pulled over to the side and there were four people out there in their backyard and I started talking to them and said, ‘I came over here cause thought you’d have some margaritas or something.’ While we were putting they made two buckets of margaritas and brought ’em out to us.

“Yeah, that feels like us. Players staying at homes, caddies walking to the first tee. There’s something really community about this place and it feels like the kind of place we thrive in.”

There will be at least three cracks at it – three years is the length of the first contract – and Whan is banking on the same approach working here that has worked not only in the U.S. but all over the world.

One of Whan’s first tasks was to get his players to focus on the sponsors, helping them understand why it is beneficial to team with the LGPA. Each week, players get a card that tells them everything from who the sponsor is to what they should say in interviews and post on social media. It even encourages players to hand-write thank you notes.

“It’s old school, but I tell you, as a guy that sponsored things my whole life, I never got a thank you card,” Whan said. “I think that’s helped us rebound the most. It’s very unique.”

None of this suggests the rebound the LPGA has experienced has been easy or even complete. The popularity with American fans arguably isn’t what it once was and it can be hard to market the game when the tour is dominated by players from other countries.

Of the top 25-ranked players in the world, only six are from the United States while 10 are from South Korea. Just four more Americans can be found when expanding to the top 50 while there are 12 more from South Korea.

Whan admits it’s been a struggle, but he sees the globalization of the game – 15 tournaments are played in 13 counties besides the U.S. – as a strength.

“I said, ‘Listen, if I could be the commissioner of the LPGA in 1975 with American players, American fans, American sponsors or the commissioner in 2015 when I might have fans from all over the world, sponsors from all of the world and TV deals, I’ll take B,” Whan said. “It’s gonna be harder to figure out but we can move up with the tour which is where we are today.

“It’s a small Olympics every week. You bring in 30 different countries and showcase it to 150 countries. The best players in the world come to one tour in women’s golf, there is only one echelon to reach and this is it. That’s kind of cool.”

As Whan points out, global interest has been good for business. But there is also the desire to continue to strengthen at home.

Michigan now hosts two tournaments after being absent from the LPGA schedule since the Oldsmobile Classic in the Lansing area played from 1992-2000. Both events are ones Whan hopes last well beyond their first contracts and playing in the States is important to American players.

“I'm a global player, have a global sponsor so it is important to travel overseas, but at the same time this is our home and this is where we want to play,” Paula Creamer said. “So it's nice that we've been getting more events in the States and in locations like this where golf is so important and people love the game. … I think the excitement about it is very important.”

That excitement is prevalent at Travis Pointe this week. Holding on to it will be the key.

“We want to become part of the community and to me, I don’t want to sign up an event for 2-3 years,” Whan said. “You want to sing up an event for 15, 16 years. This looks like the kind of place we could come for a long time.”