LPGA Tour boss sees enduring future in NZ
Latest stop on glamorous global tour in Auckland has potential to become bigger and better.
Smiths Falls, Ontario Age: 20 Career LPGA earnings: US$2,916,797 Started playing at the age of 3. Sister Brittany was a member of the Symetra Tour. Became the second youngest in LPGA history to win a major championship with her victory at the PGA Championship (18y/9m/2d), trailing only Lydia Ko. Played in the Rio Olympics (T7). She is the highest ranked (No 11) player in the field outside of Ko, has won four times on the tour, and once in 2017 (Meijer Classic). DANIELLE KANG (USA) San Francisco, California Age: 24 Career LPGA earnings: US$2,382,795 Qualified for LPGA Tour on first attempt. Won the US Women’s Amateur title in 2010 and 2011 and was leading amateur at the British Open and LPGA Championship, where she was the only nonprofessional to make the cut. Her 2017 season has been her best to date with strong performances in the USA’s Solheim Cup victory as well as first win on tour, and first major, at the PGA Championship. World ranking at 21, after peaking at 19 this year. PAULA CREAMER (USA) For the man the premier women’s golfers in the world know simply as ‘Commish’, this week’s New Zealand Women’s Open is just a little personal.
So when LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan talks about his desire to see the inaugural edition of the Kiwi tournament as a fully fledged event under his organisation’s umbrella grow into something much more impactful, and eventually move to a prime February date, you know this is more than just the most influential figure in the women’s game paying lip service.
Whan, who has piloted the LPGA Tour over the eight years from a US-centric, bit-part operation into a truly global, year-round showcase of women’s golf, won’t make it out for the first New Zealand Women’s Open, at Windross Farm in south Auckland starting on Thursday. He is a busy man, and splits appearances at these further flung events with his marketing chief Jon Podany.
But he will be here in spirit. And in person next year, because he is desperate to see for himself this little country where the very special player he calls, ever so appropriately, ‘Uno’ hails from.
You see Whan and New Zealand’s best golfer, and former world No 1, Lydia Ko have what you might call a special relationship.
The Commish admits his tour simply would not be in New Zealand were it not for Ko’s presence as one of her sport’s icons; but he also rightfully beams with pride over their arrival at the smallest, and most distant, country they will visit in their circumnavigation of the globe.
Whan has known Ko since she was 14, which was when he tagged her Uno, the Spanish word for No 1. He did so because he considered it an inevitable destination in her golf career.
He has prided himself, and his tour, on their ability to reward the premier players with tournaments in their home country. And so it was that when Ko made the ascension to the top spot in her sport (a position she only recently surrendered this year with a rare form slump), that a New Zealand stopover became an inevitability.
‘‘I remember sitting next to Lydia when we announced this event, and she whispered to me ‘Commish, you’re going to go to the most beautiful place in the world’,’’ Whan told the Star-Times in an exclusive interview from the US.
‘‘I said ‘hey Lydia, I’ve just moved from Carlsbad, California, and that’s the most beautiful’. She looked back and said, ‘that’s the second’.’’
Whan admits this is a ‘‘special’’ event for him because of his relationship with Ko. And it’s why he has a vision for it that he predicts will see it last far longer than the current three-year commitment they have with Kiwi organisers The Clubhouse and chief sponsor MCKAYSON.
‘‘I said to Uno at one point we’re going to have to go to your home town, because it seems like as we’ve had different No 1 players in the world over my eight years, like Ai Miyazato from Japan, and Yani Tseng from Taipei, we’ve taken events to their countries.
‘‘If I look back at all the expansion we’ve had in my time, it’s all been driven by the players. I’m just smart enough to pay attention when I hear about it. So it’s nice to see the people putting Lydia in her apparel are also bringing the tour to New Zealand.
‘‘When we started talking to Michael [Goldstein] and the gang from Clubhouse, at first it was just how do we get the LPGA there. Then I think they were blown away with what bringing the LPGA means in terms of media and consumer eyeballs all around the world.’’
LPGA Tour events are typically beamed out to around 170 countries in the world, and economic benefits for hosts are estimated from between US$20-60 million.
The NZ Open and LPGA are locked into a three-year deal in the tournament’s current guise, but Whan talks of a relationship lasting decades, and eventually moving to a more natural February date to partner up with the Australian Open.
New Zealand golfer Lydia Ko with LPGA Tour commissioner Michael Whan.