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Whan for the LPGA is a Winner

By: Nancy Berkley


The first sign that Michael Whan, the newly appointed Commissioner of the LPGA, is a winner is that there was a timely and accurate press release on the lpga.com website the morning of October 28th. "A good start is half the race," is what my father taught me; so, I'm on board with what looks like a fabulous choice for the LPGA.

Here's what impresses me most about Whan:

1. He has a strong brand-marketing background. He worked at Proctor Gamble as a brand manager, which by any business-school standard is still the job-of-choice for any would-be marketing professional. And he advanced at P&G through he ranks, which is no easy job either.

2. He worked in the golf industry and, according to reports I've read, is a very good golfer. He worked with Wilson - a nostalgic industry for me because without the support of Wilson Golf over 50 years ago, there would not be an LPGA today. He also worked for TaylorMade at a critical time in its growth.

3. Whan likes challenges. (He will have plenty of those.) He left TaylorMade to become CEO of a tooth-whitening company, Brite-Smile. Actually, that's not so surprising a detour because during his stint at Proctor and Gamble he worked in the oral-care segment. And, of course, we know that golf balls and teeth share a very important similarity: they're both white!

4. Mike has thrived once already in taking a floundering sports product and rebranding and reshaping it. He was lured away from Brite-Smile in 2002 to become CEO of ITECH Hockey, a hockey-equipment company that needed a turn-around expert. After seven years and merging, rebuilding and refocusing the company, it was sold to Bauer, a major Canadian hockey company. Good job, Mike! (For more, see www.missionitech.com/mergernews.html and www.reuters.com/article/pressRelease/idUS186843+24-Sep-2008+PRN20080924.)

Interestingly, one of the quotes that he will constantly be reminded of is what he said when Bauer bought Mission-ITECH: "Consolidation is essential for the long-term success of the overall hockey industry." So lots of reporters are going to ask about his plans for future consolidation with other golf associations like the PGA Tour and the PGA of America. I hope he deflects those questions brilliantly. The last thing women's golf - especially its teaching division - is to be part of the PGA of America.

5. Finally, and maybe most importantly, he will be "one of the guys" in the maze of golf association and organizations that operate in a very fragmented golf industry. (There isn't a woman in sight at the top of the organizational chart in any meaningful role - except for Cindy Davis at Nike.) Of course, as a woman golfer, it would have been nice to see a woman at the head of the LPGA. But I am a pragmatist, and in this case gender takes second place to what I am assuming and hoping will be a very effective leader for all women golfers in this country and around the world. And just as a postscript, I like his age - not part of the "old boys" but part of the Title IX generation that saw women play sports in grade school through college.

His challenge will be to define the LPGA brand which now is a mushy women's golf "something." He will have to sort through the competing demands for resources between the Tour and Teaching divisions and whether they can really share a brand.

The number of women LPGA-trained professionals has barely increased in the last decade. The number of women coming through the PGA of America apprentice ranks is no better. And the total number of women golfers in the U.S. is still stalled out at 23%. I am not saying that the small number of female instructors is the "cause" of the sluggish growth in women golfers over the last decade. I'm just suggesting that something is wrong with this picture.

There is no way that the PGA of America is going to bring more women to the game. It's not their mission regardless of any such happy talk. The PGA is concerned about making sure its 27,000 members (99.9% male) have jobs and bringing more top women teaching professionals to their membership is just not in the cards. Women's golf in the U.S. will not grow through the efforts of the PGA of America.

What will help grow the game for women is strong, smart leadership by the LPGA and its new commissioner. And it's not bad that President Obama brings a woman, Marley Barnes, along on his golf outings either (more on that in a separate article).

Whan's timing is great. Planning will soon begin for men's and women's golf in the 2016 Olympics. Equally important is that in 2014 the men's and women's U.S. Opens will be played back-to-back at Pinehurst. It will force the guys in the broadcasting booth to talk about female golfers and how they will play that same course next week. Many women who just watch golf on TV are convinced that only men can play it.

As an aside, an area that has not fully been explored is the wellness and health factor of golf (not just fitness and training.). A recent Swedish study reported that golfers live five years longer than non-golfers. I don't think it's just because Swedish golfers may walk more. I think it's because golf is a sport that helps our balance, flexibility and strength as we play it - whether we hit a long ball or a short ball. "Golf is Good for You" is a study I'm presently working on. There's lots of room for creative branding in the women's golf industry.

Mike has a couple of months to get the lay of the land - or the rub of the green. In that time, I hope he learns a lot, so that on January 1 good things start happening again for the LPGA and the 6 million women and growing number of junior girls who play the game in the U.S.

Mike, "Congratulations" and "Best Wishes," and thanks to the LPGA Search Committee for doing a great job.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is a regular contributor to Cybergolf and an expert on women's golf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference for marketing golf to women. She is a resource for golf-industry trends and marketing advice on her website www.nancyberkley.com. She chaired a panel at the World Scientific Congress of Golf in Phoenix, Ariz., in March 2008, and was a guest speaker at the Northern California Business Women's Conference at Poppyridge Golf Course in Livermore, Calif., in June 2008. Nancy also consults with golf facilities on how to attract more women golfers and families to the game. She was a contributing editor of Golf for Women magazine and is the Chair of the Advisory Board of Golfer Girl Magazine, where she also writes a series about careers in the golf industry. Her articles also appear on www.ladiesgolfjourney.com. Nancy provides a Free Help Line on her website for those seeking marketing advice in the golf industry.