THE INTERVIEW – MIKE WHAN

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John Huggan sits down with the LPGA Tour Com­mis­sioner to talk about the women’s game – where it has come from and its fu­ture.

To say that Mike Whan has been do­ing a good job is some­thing of an un­der­state­ment. Com­mis­sioner of the LPGA Tour since 2010, the 52-year-old Amer­i­can has over­seen a huge growth in prize­money and tour­na­ments on the women’s game’s big­gest cir­cuit. In seven years, to­tal purses have risen from US$40mil­lion to $67mil­lion; the num­ber of events from 23 to 34. How has he done it? Whan sat down with John Huggan re­cently to dis­cuss all of the above and his plans for the bright fu­ture of what is golf’s first truly World Tour. Let’s get right to it. You’ve been the head of the LPGA for eight years now. How are you do­ing?

[laughs] Noth­ing that sleep can’t cure. I’m en­joy­ing my­self. I like the play­ers and the growth we’ve had. It’s tax­ing phys­i­cally, but that is the same for the play­ers. None of us are fly­ing in pri­vate jets. So phys­i­cally it is tax­ing, but emo­tion­ally it is re­ju­ve­nat­ing. And what about the busi­ness side of things? Are you where you want to be at this stage?

Un­for­tu­nately for me, I ex­plained in 2010 where I wanted to be in four or five years. That was 32 events. We’re at 36 now. I wanted to get to $60m in to­tal prize­money and we are be­yond that. So the good news is we are ahead of our ob­jec­tives. We have also reached 500 hours of tele­vi­sion an­nu­ally, from a base of 200. My tar­get was 300. Plus, we have gone from 60 per­cent tape-de­layed to 90 per­cent live. Are those the main tar­gets? More money, more tour­na­ments, more TV? Is it that sim­ple?

My main ob­jec­tive at the start was sim­ply let­ting my mem­bers play. I told them I wasn’t go­ing to worry about what they were playing for, or what the TV deals are. Let’s just play. Back then, whether you were a player or a fan, it was hard to love the LPGA. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But the play­ers were not playing enough to be com­pet­i­tively sharp. And we weren’t reg­u­lar enough for the fans to count on us. We weren’t fill­ing the need for ei­ther camp.

Once we started playing reg­u­larly, the money started to take care of it­self. I have never in my eight years sat across from a spon­sor and told them I needed them to come up with a big­ger purse. With more

tour­na­ments came more com­pe­ti­tion to be the best on the sched­ule. So the money took care of it­self.

Ob­jec­tive num­ber two was de­liv­er­ing bet­ter tele­vi­sion to our fans. We had to give them a bet­ter prod­uct to watch. I don’t mean scoring; I mean be­ing on reg­u­larly at times the fans could rely on. Week in and week out. Then we had to sell out TV rights to 150 coun­tries, not 15 coun­tries. No Tour makes money at events these days. Over a sea­son, we lose more money than we make on golf tour­na­ments. But the TV money means we make a profit. Espe­cially when we are now in 175 coun­tries.

Don’t get me wrong though. Those were just foun­da­tional goals. We haven’t “made it.” We’re like any busi­ness – if you are stand­ing still you are go­ing back­wards. All we’ve done so far is build the foun­da­tion. You have an in­cred­i­bly in­ter­na­tional cast of play­ers. There are good and bad as­pects to that for an Amer­i­can-based tour. What are they as you see them?

There are no bad as­pects. When I ar­rived I told the play­ers “growth” was a six-let­ter word and the “W” stands for “World Tour … get over it.” We are worldly. And we’re not go­ing back to the 1970s when the play­ers drove to events that were 85 per­cent US-based.

If we want the best to play each other ev­ery week, we have to fol­low the Olympics, not a re­gional US Tour.

The down­side of our goal cir­cuit is that the changes have maybe come too soon and too fast for our fan base. But the best sport­ing event in the world is the Olympics. They have fig­ured it out. They put on an event that is so good the best in the world all strive to get there. It’s a home­town event open to ev­ery­body. And that’s what we try to do ev­ery week.

What I see hap­pen­ing is re­as­sur­ing. In Amer­ica there are Ai Miyazato fan clubs. That wouldn’t have hap­pened 20 years ago. So it’s not a prob­lem com­mer­cially that so many of the best play­ers are not Amer­i­can?

Oh, that both­ers Amer­i­cans. They want to be the best. But it’s not a prob­lem for me. I say to spon­sors I can de­liver an All-Amer­i­can tour if that is what they want. But you know who wants to watch that? Amer­i­cans. If I did that, spon­sors would be quick to com­plain. An All-Amer­i­can event in Amer­ica pro­vides only one-third of the value. They don’t want that. They want 175 coun­tries watch­ing and big rat­ings in Korea and China and Ja­pan and Tai­wan. And to get those, you need the best play­ers in the world com­pet­ing.

So the only chal­lenge for us, as the first truly “World Tour”, is time. For some fans – and some me­dia – it will take time for them to catch up.

In 2010 be­ing so in­ter­na­tional was seen as your big­gest weak­ness. Now it is our great­est strength. And ev­ery­one knows that, to the point where I get other tours in other sports ask­ing me how we pulled this o›.

We’re not that smart of course. We’ve made a lot of mis­takes. But when I look at how much money the NFL and the NBA have spent try­ing to be global – 100s of mil­lions of dol­lars – we do ok sell­ing to our 175 coun­tries. Should you con­tinue to be based in Amer­ica?

I want to be like our spon­sors. I want a global brand. But I also want to have a home. I look at ten­nis and find it to be a lit­tle no­madic. Play­ers play from their homes. So it’s not re­ally a Tour. It’s a bunch of in­di­vid­u­als fly­ing in from all over ev­ery week. Then they go home.

The di›er­ence is that most of our play­ers move to Amer­ica, where we still have 60 per­cent of our events. So we are a tighter group. When we fly home, we fly home to­gether. Your sched­ul­ing strikes me as a bit allover-the-place. Does it make sense to you?

That’s a goal of ours. We do travel a lot. Maybe too much. But I don’t have the lever­age that the PGA Tour has. I can’t say to spon­sors, “here’s your date fel­las.” But we are get­ting there. In the last cou­ple of years our sched­ule has made more sense. And that will con­tinue in the com­ing years. The LET isn’t do­ing too well at the moment. Is there any move for you to swal­low them up, or help them out?

I have made it clear to them that we are here to help them in any way we can. We’re hav­ing di­a­logue about that.

But I will say that my goal of giv­ing women the op­por­tu­nity to play golf for a liv­ing has a bor­der round it. I’ve said that to my board. And I’ve said it to the LET. I don’t think I run a US Tour. I run a global tour. And that works

so much bet­ter when there are re­ally strong re­gional tours. The play­ers need some­where to com­pete on the way up. What would or could you do to help the LET?

I would in­vest heav­ily in build­ing 10 more full-field LET events. I wouldn’t care how much they played for. I wouldn’t care if they were on TV. I’d get their mem­bers playing. Once we have those events, purses will in­crease and TV will step up. But you can’t get ahead of that goal. I’ve looked at the win­ning scores on the LPGA Tour. They are quite in­cred­i­ble. The average win­ning score through the first five months is 17-un­der-par. That makes me won­der about the strength of the courses and how they are be­ing set-up. Are they too easy?

I don’t want more dicult. I cer­tainly don’t want to watch play­ers grind­ing away try­ing to make par on ev­ery hole. I’m not say­ing that.

I know. But I deal with a lot of course own­ers. They all want a US Open-style course. They want me to set-up their course so that one-un­der par wins. But that’s not what I want, even if that is what they be­lieve the best courses are.

What is fun is watch­ing the best play­ers in the world play their best. I’m not set­ting it up so that 20 un­der wins. But that is what you are get­ting in many weeks.

I want the course to be about 6,600-yards and may the best player win. Isn’t the ideal a bit of ev­ery­thing you just men­tioned?

Maybe. But what we need to get over is the no­tion that ma­jors have to be re­ally hard.

Look at Royal Birk­dale this year at The Open Cham­pi­onship. It was a phe­nom­e­nal event. And if the only neg­a­tive I hear af­ter­wards is the win­ning score was too low, I don’t care. That’s just silly and the view of those who have been around too long and are stuck in his­tory. I mean, who gives a shit? The golf was phe­nom­e­nal. The play­ers loved it. And the fans loved it too. We should fo­cus on that. We should de­liver great golf for the peo­ple who want to watch it and not worry about con­triv­ing a win­ning score. But when the win­ning scores get as low as we have seen on the LPGA this year, are you re­ally pro­vid­ing the va­ri­ety and the chal­lenge re­quired to iden­tify the best play­ers? They are go­ing to find it harder to sep­a­rate them­selves in a wedge and putting con­test.

Could be. It doesn’t sound like I’m go­ing to talk you into this. Maybe not. But it’s my job to stim­u­late de­bate here.

[Laughs] Fair point. But I re­ally don’t care what the win­ning score is. Some­times the rough grows thick, some­times it doesn’t. What­ever, I’m not stress­ing over it. Okay, mov­ing on. Why don’t you have a ma­jor in Asia?

I don’t have an op­por­tu­nity to put one there. Not yet. Plus, that would mean we’d have six. And peo­ple have made enough fun of the fact we have five. So I’m not go­ing there.

Be­sides, peo­ple who fol­low the Tour would ar­gue that we have ma­jors in Asia. They don’t get called ma­jors, but stand­ing on the 18th tee in Korea or Kuala Lumpur or China the events have a ma­jor feel. But I can’t just start sprin­kling ma­jor dust ev­ery­where.

Hav­ing said that, if I had three ma­jors drop o• the sched­ule, at least one of the re­place­ments would be in Asia. Do you worry about the Korean LPGA or Ja­panese LPGA cor­ner­ing the Asian mar­ket be­fore you?

Not re­ally. A few years ago we went to Thai­land and no one there was playing golf. Now we have nearly a dozen Thai women on Tour. And when we go there now there are 30,000 girls watch­ing.

We are the best Tour cur­rently, so our re­spon­si­bil­ity is to spread the word. We can’t be global from our desks. If we leave those coun­tries bet­ter than we found them, we’ve done a good job. Okay, last ques­tion. Why has Korea pro­duced so many good women play­ers and are only now com­ing up with a few men? Any the­o­ries? I’m not sure I know any more than any­one else. All I do know is that, if you are a young Korean girl with ath­letic abil­ity you will be steered to golf quickly … or ice skat­ing [laughs]. So they get the best of the best early. No other coun­try can say that. I’m just glad they are mak­ing our Tour such an at­trac­tive prod­uct for spon­sors.

Whan chats with one of the LPGA Tour’s ma­jor draw­cards, Ly­dia Ko.

Whan says the strong Korean pres­ence on the LPGA Tour is at­trac­tive to spon­sors.

The launch of the HSBC Women’s Cham­pi­ons was the first steps into Asia for the LPGA.

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