LPGA Season Recap - The 'Whan Supremacy'

By: Nancy Berkley

A few years ago some industry observers may have thought that the LPGA would not survive. But although the tour's commissioner, Mike Whan, may not look like Matt Damon, star of the "Bourne Supremacy," they both share an instinct for survival and smart strategy.

Now in his third season as commissioner, Whan's strategy provides a better picture of how it's working for the LPGA. In a few words: It's looking good. Here's a recap of the season.

The final tournament of the LPGA season, the CME Group Titleholders, was played this past weekend in Naples, Fla., on the Tiburon course designed by Greg Norman. All players qualified for the tournament based on points earned during the year. All entrants played all four rounds; there was no cut.

And the winner was China's Shanshan Feng, who two months ago won the Reignwood LPGA Classic in Beijing as part of the LPGA's Asian Swing. Gerina Piller of the U.S. took second-place honors at the Titleholders.

The LPGA uses the final tournament to announce several other player awards. The year 2013 was a season of "firsts."

The Rolex Player of the Year went to Inbee Park, the first South Korean to win the award. The Vare Trophy, recognizing the player with the lowest overall average score, went to American Stacy Lewis with an average score of 69.48. This was the first time in 20 years a U.S. player won the Vare Trophy. Moriya Jutanugarn won the Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year award, the first time a player from Thailand has carried home that honor.

But the real winner of this LPGA season is Whan. After three years on the job there's a good picture of his vision, innovative leadership style, strategic risk-taking and, most importantly, understanding of the tour's assets.

In the way of background, it's worth identifying what I call "The Big Three" in the golf industry. Of course the following is just my opinion. The LPGA primarily offers a women's golf tour and LPGA events worldwide. The PGA Tour primarily offers golf tournaments in the United States. The PGA of America primarily provides golf professionals (about 27,000 members - 96 percent male) principally in the United States - to teach the game and manage golf facilities. The LPGA, PGA and PGA tours are golf's "Big Three."

Whan was the first leader of these organizations to embrace a global tour. When I interviewed the commissioner during his first year on the job, he already had a strategy: the LPGA Tour had to go global.

His LPGA players came from all over the world and he knew that a successful tour would require sponsors who valued its global quality. He figured that global businesses would be a nice fit for an international tour. He was right about the strategy, and he executed it.

For example, the CME Group, sponsor of the Titleholders, began as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and now manages financial products of all varieties that trade in world-wide markets. Prudential Insurance Company, another LPGA sponsor, sells life insurance not only in the United States but also in China, Japan, South America and many other countries. RR Donnelley, sponsor of the Founders Cup, provides integrated communications worldwide.

There were observers, including some LPGA Tour players, who feared that Whan's global strategy would dilute the relevance of the LPGA in the United States. History is important, and the LPGA is America's oldest continuing women's sports organization.

But that fear has not materialized. In my opinion, U.S. golf fans who say they don't watch LPGA Tour events because there are not enough American players were really Annika Sorenstam watchers and would have dropped out when she retired anyway. For a little while, Michelle Wie looked like she would be the new star; but that hasn't materialized - at least not yet.

With a background in marketing, Whan knew where his sponsors would have to come from. And that's where he took the LPGA Tour. The fact is his commitment to the globalization of the LPGA Tour is turning out to be prophetic. Recently, both the PGA of America and the PGA Tour have been "talking global."

The PGA of America, under the leadership of its new CEO, Peter Bevacqua, put together a task force to study hosting a PGA Championship - the organization's flagship event - outside the U.S. A major factor in the decision will be the effect on PGA members who currently have looked for positions primarily in the U.S. Whether or not a global strategy will enhance employment opportunities of PGA professionals is one of the major strategic questions on the table.

In addition, earlier in November the PGA Tour announced it was opening a new franchise in China, adding PGA Tour China to other PGA Tour-sponsored groups: the Champions Tour, Web.com Tour, PGA Tour Latinoamérica and PGA Tour Canada.

The PGA of America had its annual meeting last weekend, and the guest speaker was former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. When asked in an interview what he was going to talk about with the PGA, Giuliani said it focus on "leadership." Then he added that the most important quality of leadership is being innovative. If that's the mayor's message, the odds increase that the PGA of America will dip its toe in a foreign venue with its new CEO.

Commissioner Whan was there first, but he also had some good luck. His timing was perfect. I don't think he could have anticipated three years ago that his global-strategy-decision would benefit so much from advances in social media like Twitter and Facebook.

"It's a Small World After All" could be the LPGA's anthem. Here's a perfect example:

Stacy Lewis enjoyed a one-stroke lead on the final hole of the Bejing Classic in early October. Her shot to the green was good and a two-putt was likely to earn her the trophy. But Feng's approach shot hit a rock, bounced back, hit the flagstick and landed three feet from the hole, thus allowing her to eagle the hole and win the tournament.

Within minutes, Lewis tweeted about her hard-luck loss and characterized Feng's victory as a "crazy shot" - not exactly a gracious comment (in fact, Lewis later deleted the tweet).

Not only was her tweet read by thousands of global fans, but the whole Twitter incident was covered in the U.S. and international golf magazines and websites. It didn't matter whether you were at the Beijing tournament or even watched the final round on TV. It's a global world and Whan took the LPGA in that direction from the start. He got lucky that technology enhanced his decision.

Whan and the LPGA were also fortunate with the tour's TV coverage. When he became commissioner, only the LPGA's major championships were carried by the primary TV networks. The remainder were usually (but not always) shown (not always at prime time) on Golf Channel.

I don't think Whan could have predicted that Comcast, owner of Golf Channel, would buy a majority interest in NBC, which then allowed NBC to co-brand NBC and the Golf Channel in 2011. Although many of the LPGA events are only covered by the Golf Channel, NBC, with its experience covering the Olympics, has helped Golf Channel do a better job of telling the back-stories of young LPGA players.

And there's more good news. Welcome, Julie Inkster, Paige MacKenzie and Karen Stupples - all three experienced LPGA Tour players - as new faces and voices in the TV booth covering LPGA events. Viewers will now hear three great female golfers explain club choices and course-management decisions the LPGA players make on the course. Best of all, the announcers know the players personally and will be able to share first-hand insights into what's going through their minds. Who are the risk-takers and who are the cautious ones?

In my opinion, it's very likely that Whan had something to do with the decision to put more women in the broadcast booth and who to put there. That is the kind of strategic thinker I believe he is.

Also as part of the Titleholders, the LPGA announced its schedule for next season. It's the first time in many years there will be 32 Tour events, with an increase in the number played in the United States and more prize money than ever before.

But based on my conversations with the commissioner over the years, what stands out in my mind is his understanding of the assets - the history and legacy - of the LPGA and its founders.

For example, the RR Donnelley Founders Tournament was his idea. He studied the history of the tour and recognized the struggle and courage of the 13 women who originated the LPGA in 1950. He decided that the current LPGA Tour players had to not only honor the founders but also build a better future to maintain their legacy. As a result, half the prize money awarded to Founders Cup winners goes toward the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program and the future of women's golf.

Whan recognized that the LPGA's history is an organizational strength. When he learned about a former LPGA tournament called the Titleholders that was open to only the year's top players, he basically said, "Let's bring that back." And that became the CME Group Titleholders.

On the other hand, he's willing to be innovative. The Solheim Cup was only a "half-international" competition. Because of its qualifying rules, basically only U.S. and European LPGA Tour players could compete in the biennial team event. That didn't sit well with Whan.

And his answer is an innovative new tournament - the International Classic - to be played for the first time next July in Maryland at Caves Valley Golf Club. The event is a hybrid Solheim-Olympic competition that will be played every two years (in the off-years of the Solheim Cup). LPGA Tour players from eight countries will compete in match-play team formats for their countries, with the winning team to be "crowned" as the best LPGA Tour nation.

The eight countries participating were selected based on the success of players from that country in 2013. The participating countries are Australia, Chinese Taipei, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Thailand and the United States.

But a season recap of the LPGA and its accomplishments would not be complete without some somber reflections. The fact remains that the number of golfers in the United States is not growing and that includes female adult and junior golfers. I don't have hard data to report, but that's my impression based on conversations with industry sources. The drop-out rate seems to equal the new-golfer rate, reinforcing the "hole-in-the-bucket" theory.

The LPGA Tour or the approximately 2,000 female golf instructors in the U.S. (from the PGA and the LPGA Club Professional divisions combined) cannot fix this growth-less problem. Numerous initiatives have been tried, from 12-hole rounds to "tee it forward" programs to the PGA's "Get Golf Ready." It's not surprising that the results have been unimpressive. Among other challenges and, unlike the ski industry which has offered babysitting services for decades, domestic golf facilities just can't figure out how to attract new female golfers and, more importantly, "why" to do it.

To address the lagging numbers of women golfers: If I were King - or Queen - I would require every PGA and LPGA teaching professional, golf course manager and course superintendent to play a complete 18-hole round (in four hours or less) with a female 35 handicapper. Only then would they understand this market segment. And only then could some serious innovations and strategic thinking begin.

I have never thought the barrier was cost. The barrier is too much time invested for not enough personal value. The value proposition must be clarified. Perhaps that will be an upcoming sequel to this year's Whan supremacy.

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.