A Conversation with Commissioner Mike Whan - An Update on the Borderless LPGA

By: Nancy Berkley

November 17th is the first day of the last tournament of the LPGA season. And, after the first of four rounds, the leader of the CME Group Titleholders is Na Yeon Choi of South Korea at 6-under. Tied a stroke behind are Morgan Pressel of the U.S. and Karrie Webb of Australia.

LPGA Tour Commissioner Michael Whan

On the eve of the tournament, I sat down with LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan for our second annual conversation about the future of the LPGA. It was just a year ago - same time, same place - that he and I had our first conversation. (See below for a link to that story.)

Now, with two years of experience behind him, the commissioner has more to talk about. And some of what he has to say about his global-borderless strategy, the women's golf fan base, and personal challenges may surprise you. It also should impress you and confirm that the LPGA is in good shape. Here's our interview.

Nancy Berkley: Here we are at the grand finale LPGA tournament - new format, new name. Who came up with the idea for the "Titleholders?"

Mike Whan: I can only take partial credit for it. Last year - being new to the LPGA - I watched a video that was done for the LPGA's 50th anniversary. I was watching the video on a plane and I remember that I wrote two words down on a napkin: "Founders" and "Titleholders."

I knew we had to figure out a way to tell the story of the LPGA founders. I had a vision for a tournament that honored our past but looked forward to the future. And now we have the R.R. Donnelly Founders Cup Tournament that honors our founders and also supports the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program.

Tom Marra, CEO of Symetra Financial, a financial services
company in Seattle, Wash., and Commissioner Mike Whan
announcing the Symetra Tour - The Road to the LPGA.

NB: Where did the idea for the "Titleholders" come from?

MW: On that same napkin, I circled "Titleholders" and wrote down "great name - new concept." You know at the first Titleholders in 1937, they gave a green jacket to the winner? And that was before the "other" green jackets. The Titleholders tournament made an impression on me. But, although the name of the tournament is rooted in LPGA history, the format for this inaugural CME Group Titleholders is new. It's based on my vision and strategy.

In my view, the LPGA is only in business because we have title sponsors for our tournaments. My sponsors are my customers. If this was my business - and I guess, the LPGA, is my business, I would be bringing my top customers together at least once a year and thanking them.

I wanted a tournament at the end of the season that honored our sponsors and that we could talk about all year long. Two of my staff members in charge of tournament operations said, "What if at every tournament, someone qualified for the Titleholders?" That's where the idea came from, and I credit them.

NB: This is a four-round tournament - no cuts, no eliminations. Why?

MW: I didn't want an elimination tournament. I wanted a tournament that you had to work hard to get in to and that you had to work hard to win. I believe that when you have to play well day after day, the best player will rise to the top.

NB: I know you are working hard, too. As you look back over your two years, how do you measure your success?

MW: I don't think I have to measure "my" success, and I don't mean that in a bad or arrogant way. My point is that I measure my success in terms of the success of my members.

NB: I need some clarification. What do you mean by "members?"

MW: I have four groups and I refer to them as "members." One group is the LPGA Tour players. A second group is the talented players who are trying to make it on the Tour - what we referred to as the Futures Tour. As of the press conference a few minutes ago, we are recasting our futures tour into "The Road to the Tour" under the new sponsorship of the Symetra Company.

My third membership group is the LPGA Foundation and its primary focus is on girls golf. My fourth group is the teaching and club professionals and the focus on instruction. My job is to empower and inspire my four members to be the best they can be. I measure my success on how well I deliver for them. So, my members are the ones who really measure my success.

NB: But aren't you leaving one group out? What about measuring your success based on the growth of fans of women's golf and the number of women golfers? The U.S. golf industry as you know is very focused on growing those numbers.

MW: I have studied how previous commissioners have focused on fans and media. But my strategy requires that my members come first. If my members have the opportunities to be successful, the fans will follow. Fans want to see the best players in the world and they want to learn about them. That drives my strategy.

NB: You gave me the bridge to my next question. It's about strategy. When I talk with my friends and fellow golfers, I know they count the LPGA tournaments played here and TV broadcasts. To be very honest, they don't see growth. But I know that's not what you look at. So that leaves the question: Is your global strategy working?

MW: If I had to come up with one word that summarizes women's golf, it would be "borderless." The funny thing is that it actually happened while everyone was just talking about it. The globalization of golf didn't exist 10 years ago. The best players in the world are from 29 countries.

In answer to your question: Globally we are doing great. Our global revenues are setting records each year. Can you imagine what our TV revenues are in Taiwan with Yani (Tseng)? Or how we are doing in Seoul Korea? But, a lot of people in the U.S. don't see this and they don't see what our sponsors are doing. We have HSBC based in London sponsoring a tournament in Singapore. But it doesn't make it into the U.S. news media. I think that will change.

NB: The number of female golfers is not growing in the U.S. Do you have a job to do here?

MW: To be honest, I don't stay awake at night worrying about the participation levels of women's golf. If I do my job right, I think participation levels will improve. My job is to showcase the best talent as often and in as many places as possible. For example, we have been playing in Thailand now for five years. I've watched the little eight-year-olds watch Paula Creamer as she comes up to the tee. This year I saw five girls from Thailand in Q-school.

NB: You must realize that not everyone watching the LPGA here in the U.S. would share your enthusiasm for the borderless world of women's golf.

MW: Yes, some Americans may say, "So what's good about that - more foreign players on the Tour?" And my answer is: I don't know a business today that if it has the resources, would not welcome the global challenge. That may not have been the case 10 years ago, but it is the case today.

NB: Last year we talked about how to reach and inspire the market for the LPGA - to build that critical awareness. I think I stumped you with a question about what celebrity you would like to showcase the LPGA players. You thought Barbara Walters would do a good interview. Any new ideas this year?

MW: You got me again! But it didn't take me as long this year to come up with my answer. It's Oprah. What I find so interesting about Oprah is that she doesn't just give you just the headlines, she gives you the body and the substance. I've said this before, the LPGA is easy to dismiss at the headline level. Yes, definitely, it's Oprah. Oprah is borderless. I hope she reads this!

NB: Talking about borders, let's move to the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio. What role do you see for the LPGA?

MW: One of the things that pleased me about the Comcast purchase of NBC is that NBC does such a good job with the Olympics. They know how to tell a story and catch the human interest side of professional athletes. My guess is that 80 percent of the women competing in women's golf at the Olympic Games will be LPGA members. Of course, they won't be wearing a LPGA logo, they will be playing for their country. We have a Golf-USA committee comprising members from the LPGA Tour, PGA Tour, PGA and USGA to guide the selection of the golfers that will represent the United States at the Olympics.

NB: Now an easy question: What is your proudest achievement since last November?

MW: I believe we have made two long-term changes in the Tour's schedule: the R.R. Donnelly Founders Cup and the CME Group Titleholders. I'm proud of the fact that we "quietly" picked up six title sponsors in the last 12 months.

NB: And how would you describe your "lessons learned" this year?

MW: I've learned to be more patient. I have a little card on my computer that just says "patience" because I need to see that word every day. I'm always in a hurry - still am. But I used to get too worked up if something wasn't going my way. Now that I am more comfortable with our product and our strategy and our partnerships, I think that confidence has helped me to take things a little more slowly. Golf is a traditional sport. Change isn't golf's best friend.

NB: Looking forward, what are the biggest challenges you face as commissioner?

MB: I think a primary challenge right now is the economy. We are in a time when people are not spending money they don't need to spend. Everyone is questioning non-necessity spending. It starts at the corporations - our sponsors - and goes right down into the home.

And another challenge is being a good listener. If you want to get better, you have to listen. We have been listening to our tournament owners and sponsors. In doing that, we are creating better tournaments. Viewership is up 31 percent this year. But I really have one primary customer, and that's our sponsors. The good news is that we now have a strong base of tournament sponsors. And I hope that will continue to grow.

I think our first year, 2010, with Golf Channel, was also a challenge. But now in 2011 we have started sharing the personal interest side of our players. The story about Stacy Lewis' battle with scoliosis was an example. The women who watch our tournaments don't hit the ball as far as our players and they are not as competitive. For them, golf is more of a social experience. I know that women golfers will relate to the personal stories and challenges about the lives of our players. Many may have faced the same personal challenges. And I have to stay patient because we are going to be telling stories about our players that are going to make a difference.

NB: Last question. A really different one! I know you have three sons - and as you say "and 347 daughters." So, you may not know about the "American Girl" doll company. Many American Girl dolls feature historical figures. The dolls come with history books so there is a significant educational component to them. But I noticed there is not an American Girl doll that showcases women's golf. If there were one, whose story should it tell?My choice might be Patty Berg. Who would you suggest?

MW: [pause] It would be Nancy Lopez. Her story would empower and inspire every young girl to not only play golf but to understand the importance of family and values. I'm making a note of that!

NB: Mike, thanks so much for your time and for sharing your personal thoughts and opinions about the LPGA, borderless golf, women's golf, challenges and so on. You never dodged a question. I hope that the CME Group Titleholders has an exciting finish on Sunday at the Grand Cypress Golf Resort. And, I hope to see you next year - same time - at the Twin Eagles golf course in Naples, Fla., the new venue for the CME Group Titleholders.

For Nancy's first interview with Michael Whan, visit http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/a_conversation_with_lpga_commissioner_whan_the_future_of_the_lpga.)

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.