Mike Whan leaves but the mission to grow women’s golf remains


What is Mike Whan’s legacy? To answer that question, I’m transported back two years ago to Gleneagles, Scotland, where a 92-year-old Shirley Spork, wearing a 3-foot tall red-white-and-blue top hat, parked herself on a rowdy first tee to soak in an electric Solheim Cup that she laid the groundwork for as one of the LPGA’s 13 Founders.

Commissioner Whan, who on Wednesday announced his plans to step down from his post in 2021, created the Founders Cup in 2011 to celebrate the LPGA’s past and build toward the future. He also made sure the founders themselves were annually given a couple of all-expense-paid trips to LPGA events, along with an appearance fee.

I think of Spork in that ridiculously wonderful hat because Whan saved the tour Spork helped to start by going back to the beginning and rebuilding with a Founders-like mentality.

It wasn’t just that Whan saved the LPGA from utter collapse; it’s how he did it.

Mike Whan with LPGA founder Shirley Spork (Getty Images/LPGA)

When Whan took over the LPGA 11 years ago as a 44-year-old father of three sons, he was a golf lover who viewed himself as the “turnaround guy” for the LPGA. He had a list of objectives coming out of the Great Recession in 2009 – rebuild the schedule, increase TV viewership, create better paths for up-and-coming players – and figured he’d be around for a handful of years and then move on to the next thing.

But something happened along the way: He fell in love. And he didn’t just fall in love with the tour and its people. He fell in love with the mission. And he got angry, too.

This fast-talking middle-aged man with three boys who’d never thought about or worried about the discrepancies that exist between the genders, had his eyes opened in a massive way when he took on the role of commissioner. And he could’ve just used his dynamic personality and creativity to get the LPGA back on its feet again and then walked away.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t.

The fact that he could drive one of his boys to a Pop Warner football game or travel hockey and never worry about whether those opportunities would exist for the next generation, or if the dream of playing that sport professionally would still be a reality when his boys grew to men, yet if he’d had a girl … well, those concerns would be real, and the conversations would be different.

That reality shaped everything Whan did going forward.

“It got in me,” he said, “and I felt like I couldn’t leave.”

The turnaround numbers are striking: tournaments up 50 percent; prize money up 85 percent; TV coverage up 150 percent (30 percent in 2020!); LPGA revenue up 100 percent.

The area of growth that really gets Whan’s heart pumping is girls golf. When Whan took the helm, 15 percent of junior golfers were female and now that number is just under 40 percent. And that kind of substantial growth in girls golf can be seen worldwide, a nod to Whan’s decision to embrace the global nature of the LPGA and make it a strength.

“If people remember nothing else about the time when we had the baton,” said Whan, “I think that’s something that we can always be proud of.”

Even Whan’s own mother, Karen, took up the game at age 59 and now plays three times a week. When he asked what made her start, she said, “You know what Mike, somebody finally asked me.”

Whan tells that story often, and like so many of his messages, it’s effective because it’s unexpected.

The LPGA rose to unprecedented heights under Whan’s leadership because behind his energetic, transparent and forward-thinking style was an undeniable passion. The LPGA’s majors have been utterly transformed thanks to Whan’s ability to forge greater relationships with the major governing bodies in golf.

The Symetra Tour came under the LPGA’s umbrella early on in Whan’s tenure and in November of 2019, the Ladies European Tour and the LPGA entered a long-term partnership. Keith Pelley, CEO of the European Tour, now sits on the board of the LET along with The R&A’s Chief Executive Martin Slumbers.

That’s because Whan challenged his peers to make his mission their mission, and they responded.

“It’s not us against everybody as I felt like it once was 11 years ago,” said Whan. “I really feel like it’s golf now, pushing together to succeed, and that matters.”

Stacy Lewis, a big-picture thinker who played a large role in getting several of the tour’s blue-chip sponsors to write big checks, points to KPMG’s Women’s Leadership Summit as a lightbulb moment for Whan. In 2019, there were 19 women’s leadership days across the tour.

“I always say it takes one guy to want to see things differently,” said Lewis.

Whan is bullish when it comes to companies living out their values – that sponsorship dollars and marketing dollars need to reflect what’s said in a company memo or tacked on a boardroom wall about equality.

There’s much to celebrate about the LPGA’s exponential growth, but as Whan said in a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday, the ship is still a long way from the port.

On Sunday at the CME Group Group Tour Championship, the final round of one of the most trying years in tour history, the man known for building relationships and returning the LPGA to a culture of family, walked the range at Tiburon Golf Club and offered well wishes to every player in the field.

“We were pretty lucky to keep Mike as long as we did,” said Lewis.

The heart says this champion of champions won’t ever go too far. He’s family now.



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