Commentary

Whan's eyes wide open in LPGA job

Originally Published: October 28, 2009
By Ron Sirak | GolfWorld Executive Editor

NEW YORK -- When the phone rang, it was not so much an omen as it was a Monty Pythonesque bit of absurdist theater summing up the kind of year it's been for the LPGA, if not the entire four-year reign of Carolyn Bivens. Just as LPGA board of directors chair Dawn Hudson was about to say the next commissioner would be Michael Whan, the phone in front of her buzzed to life like an angry bee.

"Is someone calling in?" Hudson asked. Perhaps it was Bivens.

Certainly, the ousted commissioner was very much present in the not-so-carefully couched words used in Wednesday's news conference at Madison Square Garden introducing Whan as the eighth person to lead the world's most successful professional sports organization for women. Hudson said it was a day to celebrate "the progress the organization has made over the last several months." She used words like "resilient" and "resurging" and said the tour was "back on track and ready to usher in a new era behind a proven leader in sports and golf."

Leslie Greis, chair of the search committee that included independent director Bill Morton and player directors Juli Inkster and Helen Alfredsson, continued the comeback theme. Greis said the four attributes sought in the new commissioner were experience in golf or sports, a record as a global brand builder, the ability to fashion a consensus and a passion for golf.

"Mike Whan is a perfect fit for this organization," Greis said, not needing to add that Bivens had failed on at least three of those criteria. She said Rear Adm. Marty Evans, who has done an admirable job rescuing several endangered tournaments, would continue as acting commissioner until Whan takes over Jan. 4, 2010. Both Evans and Whan will be in Houston on Nov. 18 when the 2010 schedule is unveiled on the eve of the Tour Championship, Greis said.

And when it came time for Whan to speak, it was as if his words were scripted right from the search criteria drawn up by the headhunting firm Spencer Stuart, which organized the selection process. A call to central casting couldn't have produced a character actor closer to the attributes the tour had defined as important.

"Golf is special to me," Whan said. "It's been special to me my whole life. I was that crazy high school kid cutting greens at 5:30 in the morning so he could play free golf in the afternoon and caddying on Sundays, and I was the guy who decided to make golf a career move, as well, back in my early 30s and on through my career."

That career started at Procter & Gamble in 1987, went to Wilson Sporting Goods in 1994, TaylorMade Golf in 1996, Britesmile Inc. in 1999 and Mission Itech Hockey in 2002. Whan, 44, and his wife, Meg, and children, Austin (15), Wesley (13) and Connor (12), live in California but will move near LPGA headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla.

"I have a personal philosophy about leadership that maybe not everybody understands, so I'll just say it this simply," Whan explained. "I believe in listen, learn and lead, and you do it in that order."

He added: "I tend to believe my first few months in the position is going to be with pretty large ears and pretty small mouth."

Veterans of the past few years may describe that as a fairly novel concept.

Whan, who appears to be earnest and approachable, emerged as a somewhat surprise winner in the search sweepstakes that began soon after Bivens stepped down July 12. All the talk was dominated by high-profile names like Donna Orender of the WNBA and formerly of the PGA Tour; Arlen Kantarian, formerly of the U.S. Tennis Association; and Peter Bevacqua, chief business officer of the USGA.

Greis said there was "an incredible amount of interest in the position" and that the search committee had "many, many, many candidates to choose from." Sources close to the situation told GolfDigest.com that Whan was offered the job last Friday and accepted on Monday. Candidates still under consideration were informed Tuesday that someone else had gotten the job.

Whan has several large mountains to climb. A schedule that had 34 tournaments in 2008 dropped to 27 this year and will likely be in the low 20s in 2010. The loss this year of the Ginn Open, Corning Classic and Kapalua LPGA Classic helped grease the skids for Bivens. To rebuild that schedule, Whan will need to soothe feathers of tournament owners ruffled during the Bivens reign and attract new sponsors in an economy that, while showing signs of recovery, is still creaking.

Just as important, and just as challenging, will be rebuilding morale in LPGA headquarters. There have been two waves of layoffs this year, which eliminated at least 14 jobs. And there is still a residue of a culture of fear within tour headquarters that extends beyond concern for the future of the tour. As the Bivens regime circled its wagons, much of the joy was squeezed out of the workplace, according to some close to the situation.

In Whan, the LPGA may have found the man to repair relationships and rebuild the business model, but time will be the judge of that. The words spoken Wednesday by Whan were general and restrained. There were no grand promises made, no bold vision outlined, just a desire to fit in, move on and figure out how to rebuild.

"I'm humbled to be the next commissioner of the LPGA in what will be its 60th year, and I look forward to great things to come," he said. "I've said this to the people at the table and I'll say this to you: I don't take this job lightly; I took this as a personal passion, as a calling more than a position, and I won't let the LPGA players, tournaments directors [and] staff down."

The magnitude of the challenge was reflected in the turnout for the announcement, at which the number of people behind the microphones (five) equaled the number of reporters on hand.

Perhaps it was because Game 1 of the World Series was to be played in New York later Wednesday night. Perhaps it was because only 12 hours notice had been given for a 9 a.m. press conference. Hopefully, it was not because, in the world's largest media market, that was the extent of the interest. That's something Mike Whan will be gauging as he listens and learns in preparation to lead.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of GolfWorld magazine and author of the best-selling book "Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make you a Better Player" and recently released "The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice."

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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