Featured Golf News
Whan Weighs in on LPGA Tour; Inkster DQ
The relatively new commissioner of the LPGA Tour, Michael Whan, is north of the American border for this week's CN Canadian Women's Open. The 72-hole event tees off Thursday at St. Charles Golf & Country Club in Winnipeg.
Appointed to the top job in women's golf last October, Whan comes from a marketing background, and his efforts since taking over the position have focused on re-branding the LPGA Tour while getting new sponsors to fill the voids in the schedule created - in part - by his predecessor, Carolyn Bivens.
Whan worked previously at TaylorMade Golf and Wilson Sporting Goods and, before taking over the LPGA, was president of Mission-Itech Hockey. He sat down Tuesday for a Q&A with national and local reporters. Inevitably, some of the questions touched on his background in hockey, the national sport of Canada. Whan also discussed the disqualification of Hall of Famer Juli Inkster from last week's Safeway Classic in Portland for using a warm-up device while waiting on the tee for the green to clear. Here's what he had to say.
MODERATOR: Mike, thanks for coming in to meet the Winnipeg media. If you would, you've been here before, but this is your first time for the CN Canadian Women's Open. Talk about what you've seen in the few minutes that you've been here.
MIKE WHAN: Yeah, I've been to Canada quite a bit. I was in the hockey business for eight years, so you can't be in the hockey business and not be in Canada. As I was saying to Mike, my eye scan Can-Pass didn't work. It showed me as unauthorized visitor, so I think it's been too long. It's been a year and a half or two, so I guess they took me out of the system. But it's great to be back. I always tell people who don't spend a lot of time in Canada, you think about it in hockey, but if you're a golfer as I am, I think about Canada in the summertime, not quite when the tent is blowing down, but I've played a lot of golf in Canada and looking forward to being here as the commissioner because I think I've been here at least mentally as a fan for a lot of years.
Q. As commissioner of this Tour, did you have some kind of oh, no, moment on Saturday when Juli Inkster was disqualified?
MIKE WHAN: I'd love to tell you I've only had one oh, no, moment in my first eight months, but there's about an oh, no, moment a month. To be honest with you I sent Juli a text message, and I told her, tough to see as a fan. I knew she'd handle like the professional -- she always sets the standard for professional conduct on this Tour, and this weekend was no different. But I tried a little funny joke, too. My parents are retired and live in Scottsdale, and I think I got an email from every one of my mom's Tuesday afternoon 24 women that play every Tuesday, and every one of them said, "You're an idiot, let her play." So I said to Juli, I know that was my mom's phrase that they all decided to use, but they all ended with "You're an idiot, let her play." I said to Juli, it's not the first time I've been called an idiot in this job but it's the first time I actually enjoyed it. The fan base for Juli is deep, and I put myself pretty high on that list. Yeah, it's always tough to see that happen. But like I said, she was class personified even in a bad situation.
Q. What about the rule itself? You haven't answered the question about the rule itself. Should it be in there or should it be changed?
MIKE WHAN: I don't know if that was asked, but one thing that's definitely true, I mean, you're probably just getting to know me, but I wasn't hired for my ability to interpret the rules or to know the rules or to sit down with the USGA and David Fay and determine whether or not 14.2 or 14.3 is right. You know, as a regular golf fan just like you, there's a lot of rules about golf that you kind of scratch your head sometimes and say, was there a real advantage or not. But just like Julie said back in her text back to me, even if they're frustrating, they're rules, we've got to know them. I don't know, tomorrow in pro-am you'll probably see me swing with a doughnut, so if I get disqualified, so be it. It'll just end the misery early. They play to professional standards, they play to professional rules. And does it make sense that Dustin Johnson grounds his club with 5,000 people in a bunker? Probably not, but they didn't hire me to interpret the rules, I can tell you that.
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges for the Tour going forward here?
MIKE WHAN: You know, you probably know the answer with the question. But the first and foremost, and I always tell people there's three things I think about every morning when I wake up. And I use phrases, TNT, which stands for tournaments and titles, most important thing. When we're playing, everybody wins. Players win, sponsors win, young girls around the world who want to aspire to do this win, local charities win. And when we're sitting at home practicing, none of that happens. So for me it's about playing more. It's about playing in more places, and it's about when we play to make sure we're televised worldwide, so that's TNT. The second thing, I use the phrase role reversal a lot. Mike has heard it a few million times, Gail has heard it more than that probably. But if you want to play more, the first thing you have to do it think like a sponsor, not think like a professional golfer. So role reversal is the phrase we use in the office that says if we're going to talk about a tournament, the first 50 percent of that discussion has to be about the person who's writing the check, not tee boxes, not how are we going to rake the traps, not what are they running on the Stimpmeter; what's important to CN, why are we doing this, last week what's important to Safeway before that.
So it's really making sure that we're putting on an event that works with our business partners. I've never liked the term "sponsor." Didn't like it when I was one, don't like it now that I'm dealing with them. I've always liked the term "business partnership" because partnership means that you both have a role. So if we're going to be business with CN, that means we have a role to do more than just put on a golf tournament, we have a role to make sure that this is working for their business and it's working for ours and that's the business partnership. And the third thing on my little list is called "nice three," which doesn't mean much to you, but if you birdie a hole and put a three and circle it, I always think of that three in a circle because at the LPGA we get recognized a lot for being a Tour, but really there's three things that make the up LPGA; there's our tour, the LPGA and our Duramed Development Tour; there's our foundation, the LPGA Foundation, which is all about giving women an opportunity to get back on the golf course at a young age and get a chance to be these players; and there's our teaching and club professional division, 1,200 to 1,300 women around North America that are actually teaching, club professionals, working on clubs around the world. We really -- the LPGA has got to be about three things, "TNT," "role reversal" and "nice three." Long answer, you set me up for what's important, but those are the three things that really drive me every day.
Q. Why does a guy would hockey background take on a challenge like the LPGA?
MIKE WHAN: Oh, there's so many hockey players that just cringed when you used me and hockey background in the same sentence. I really have a golf background to be perfectly honest with you. I grew up on a golf course, cutting greens, caddying, that kind of crazy kid that was always at a golf course, mostly because I couldn't afford to be a member so I figured out other ways to play courses I couldn't afford to join. And when I got out of school I went to work at Procter & Gamble, and at about 29 when I had my second child, I told my wife I'm going to do what I love to do; I want to make sure my kids grew up and say their dad followed his dreams, so then I went to work in the golf business, first Wilson Golf and then TaylorMade-Adidas Golf. It was actually after kind of TaylorMade-Adidas Golf -- kind of remember saying to my wife, I came back from a board meeting and the goal was to grow by 8 percent, and it just felt like we had been growing by 80 percent for six or seven years, and it didn't seem like enough challenge. And I met a guy who owned the Minnesota Wild.
He owned this little hockey company called Mission, which was kind of roller hockey at the time, was losing a lot of money, and he kind of said to me at dinner, he said, Mike, I need you, which I thought was an interesting way to interview somebody, and he put his arm over the table and he said, "If you take my hand, I promise this is going to be a lot of fun," and it just was real personal. His name was Bob Naegele; he owned the Minnesota Wild. So I went and became the CEO of Mission Hockey, and after a couple years we added another owner, the guy who owns the San Jose Sharks, a guy named Kevin Compton, and so our little ownership group was me, Kevin Compton and Bob Naegele. We bought Itech Hockey in 2004. We partnered with a little company out of Toronto called Clothes, Inc., that owned a bunch of patents around neck and shirts -- neck protection that Canadians know real well but Americans are still learning about, and we built a nice little business.
In Christmas of 2008 we sold that business to Kohlberg Capital, which had just recently bought Bauer three months before that. So it was a great run from 2002 to 2008. Once I sold the company, I told my wife two things which you never tell your wife something you can't back up. A, I told her my next job no matter what it is won't require us to leave southern California, and the second thing is my next job won't have a lot of travel associated with it. Suffice it to say, I went 0 for 2 on those promises; I took a job with all kinds of travel and last month we moved to Orlando, Florida. I don't know if I answered your question. The real answer to your question is in the word "challenge." Golf is pretty engrained in me. Like I told you, my parents are retired and live in Scottsdale. Their big decision every day is should we play the front nine first or the back nine first. That's what their life constitutes.
But I will tell you what we've had family conversations on driving ranges and on fairways that we would have never had at a dinner table. For those of you who golf, you understand that; for those of you that don't, you just don't. I learned about the birds and the bees walking down the fairway; I learned about where my sister was going to college on a green; I talked to my father about wanting to leave Procter & Gamble and go into the golf business at a golf course. I mean, it's where we've had the greatest moments of our lives, and so it's important to me. And when I had an opportunity to be the commissioner of the LPGA, I won't lie to you, I had a couple of really sleepless weeks because I wasn't sure you could be a great commissioner and a great father at the same time. Still not sure to be honest with you, and that's my biggest challenge in life now is to do this job well and to make sure that when I lay at the final resting stage I know I was a good father. But I had a conversation with Charlie Meacham, who was the commissioner back in the '90s. Charlie told me point blank, if you want your kids to -- if you want your kids to follow their dreams, you'd better lead by example. And he knew this was a dream job for me. So he was right. So I hope my kids are watching even though I'm home less than I'd like to be.
Q. You seem to have many younger players from more countries especially the Asian countries. Is that on purpose or how do you think it's got there, and is that good?
MIKE WHAN: It probably depends on who you ask if it was on purpose. I think the bottom line is we've decided long ago that what we wanted to be at the LPGA was the showcase for the best players in the world. I went to a conference -- I mean, talking a little bit about my golf history, when I was at Wilson Golf in 1993-ish, I went to a conference in Pinehurst and the conference was about women in golf, and the topic was how are we going to expand this game if the game is really confined to the U.S. and Europe, because if you think back in the mid, early '90s, this was a U.S. and European phenomenon for women's golf. I remember sitting in a breakout room and somebody saying, hey, do we really think we're really going to get a bunch of young golfers out of Japan and China and Taiwan and Korea and Australia. Do we really think that's going to happen?
I think probably eight or nine or ten people in the room probably said to themselves, no. So now to come back in 2010, I get a media question a lot like, Mr. Whan, how are you going to deal with the amount of Asian influence on Tour, and I kind of chuckle to myself and turn to it all the time going, deal with it; this is exactly what we hoped for, that young girls literally anywhere in the world could dream of playing against the best in the world every week. I'm excited to be able to say -- I finally saw an article this weekend that was written by a guy down in Florida, and I wrote him a note saying, hey you're the first one that wrote the article I've just been waiting to see, which his comment was the LPGA puts the best of the best on display every week. You don't have to wait five weeks to see No. 1 play No. 2 play No. 4. 30 of the top 30 play, and they played last week and they're playing here this week, and in a couple weeks they'll be playing again.
And that's really what we want to do; we want to showcase the absolute best in the world, and because we've done that, we've got sponsors from around the world, we've got players from around the world, we've got fans from around the world. Your TV telecast will go to hundreds of millions of homes around the world. And just 10, 15 years ago, that wasn't even an idea anybody could really fathom, that we were going to play in Winnipeg and somebody in Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Japan is going to watch it on TV, just really wasn't a logical thought. And today I'm pretty excited about that because if you're a 12-year-old girl hitting balls anywhere in the world, you can not only dream of this, you probably have a role model in your hometown that's pulling it off as we speak.
I think if the LPGA is really about inspiring and empowering women through the game of golf, there's no better example in the world than what we're showcasing here Thursday through Sunday. I know it sounds like a PR speech, but I really do say as golf fan first and foremost and as a father second, it's pretty exciting what's happening in women's sports, that 30 countries are going to tee it up here on Thursday. Ten years ago you wouldn't have believed it and wouldn't have believed it could happen ten years later. We're not going to fall apart, are we?
Q. Does the quest to become the No. 1 player helped what you just finished talking about, knowing that there's players from all those different countries chasing that No. 1 role, as well?
MIKE WHAN: You know, you can put an asterisk next to eight months commissioner, so what's his opinion worth, and I'm fine with that. So if you write the article and go, he's still young and clueless, that's true. I would just tell you that it's got to be -- somebody asked me the other day, I forget if I was in an airport and I was doing a phone interview, and somebody said, does it bother you that the LPGA doesn't have a face, like one face? And I said, it seems to be bothering everybody else, but I'm not sure that it bothers me. If you asked me who's the face of the NHL, I'd give you seven or eight names I'd fire right off. If you're somebody from some part of the country you might say that person; if you're some -- if you asked me who's the face of the NFL, I don't think it's one person, it's Drew Brees, it's Peyton Manning, it's Reggie Bush; there's seven or eight faces of great sports complexes.
And the fact is if you ask eight different people who's the face of the LPGA, I think you might get eight different names. I can tell you if you ask somebody in Japan, they'll say Ai Miyazato, if you ask somebody in Korea, they'll probably say Jiyai Shin, if you ask somebody in America they may say Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, Cristie Kerr. I think that's an awesome time. We haven't had that in long time. I think the whole Tiger Woods run makes people believe that there's sort of one face and one name and one No. 1, and I think that's fine if that happens. I hope what's going on happens for a long time. I'm not sure all the players agree because I think all the top five or six want somebody to -- some of them, they all think, we're going to grab the mantle and run. But I think it's exciting to see what's going on right now. Every week there's not only a battle to win this trophy, there's a battle to be the Rolex Player of the Year, there's a battle to be No. 1 in the Rolex rankings. It's a pretty compelling time in women's golf.
Q. Would you agree with the allegation that in the last few years the LPGA has been spinning its wheels if nothing else, and how do you avoid any kind of pitfalls as you move ahead from here?
MIKE WHAN: You know, I'm not one to argue with you. I wouldn't agree that the LPGA is spinning its wheels. I think if you said just five years ago as we talked before, that in 2010 there's going to be a battle for No. 1 that's going to represent five or six different players, five or six different countries, there'll be millions of homes in 20 different countries kind of watching it unfold, that I'd be getting up in the morning and seeing emails from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, India, UK and Wisconsin all on the same Sunday, I don't think five, six years ago people would have believed that was doable as early as 2010. But it's happened. I think I've made this comment to the players before, which is I've been a part of four or five companies that have gone global. When I was at Procter & Gamble running the Crest business, we went global; when I was at TaylorMade Golf, we went global; when I was at Mission Itech we took our hockey products global. Going global is kind of an interesting time. It's a little bit filled with anxiety. You make mistakes, you screw up with language, you say the wrong thing in the wrong country. You treat a pro-am one place different than you treat it at different place. But you kind of keep going because the end result is a much bigger audience, a much bigger brand, a much bigger business, and at the end of the day, a much bigger fan base, and I think the LPGA is probably leading the league, no pun intended, in terms of going global.
But I think I've got some good friends who work at some other sports entities, and I know those other sports have literally spent a hundred million dollars trying to make their sport more global, and they wake up 20 years later and it's really not. The World Series is still played between two teams from North America. Hopefully at some point we put the Toronto team in there. But we're there. And I think the fact that people are asking us, geez, how is it, is it uncomfortable? Yeah, we're feeling our way through it a little bit. But I can't think of another sports franchise that wouldn't trade places with us to have this kind of global appeal, this kind of world stars. And I would tell them if they wanted it, hey, if you got there, you'd have to kind of feel your way through it a little bit when somebody starts asking how do you feel if the best centerman in hockey is from Australia because right now you couldn't conceive it. But 10 or 15 years if it really becomes more global, it's possible. I don't think it's a spinning of wheels. I think what's happening for us is we're taking off. The fact that we'll play next year in Singapore, Thailand, China, you start to go down the list of Korea, Japan, Mexico, Canada, I mean, this thing is here to stay.
Q. That's all great, but I'm just wondering, when I was on Tour, and I know I'm dating myself and all that, we had 40 events and all that, when are the gals going to return to Florida? When is my son going to be able to come and watch more events that are domestic? People ask me and I say I don't know that answer. I know you're a victim of the times we're in, economic times and everything, but I have a lot of friends at the club, they want to come and see the LPGA. It's just not there for them to see. When can we maybe expect more domestic events?
MIKE WHAN: I think that's a great question and I think it's a fair question and I love the way you asked it in terms of we want to see it, we want it to be there. And now being a Floridian I share your interest in playing more in Florida, as well. To me there's eight or nine markets that are tough to realize that we're not in. You answered a little bit of your own question. We are definitely dealing with strains, economic times. If you're a company whose stock price is down 40 percent and you laid off a few thousand people, it's difficult to assess a sports sponsorship right now in terms of your bailiwick of marketing sponsorships. But I also don't think that lasts forever. I can tell you starting in January and sitting here in August, the attitude, the amount of discussions we're having, the projects that are in place between January and August are night and day. It doesn't mean everything is solved, and as I've said to the players, if we play three more tournaments, six more tournaments or no more tournaments next year, it won't be enough for any of us, myself included.
But I feel comfortable telling you that we'll play more in 2011 than we played in 2010. I feel comfortable telling you that what's going on at the LPGA has definitely caught the attention of companies not just in the U.S. but around the world. I can tell you that I feel comfortable playing in Florida next year. I can't really tell you more than that. But it's a process. I agree with the concern. The biggest, toughest part for me right now is there's too many weeks when I don't have to be on the road, and while my wife and kids find that pretty cool, that means we're not playing somewhere. And as I said to my wife, you'll know we're succeeding when you're complaining about how often I'm gone, because I don't want to be home as many weeks as I am right now, and we'll get there.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.