LPGA Tour boss sees en­dur­ing fu­ture in NZ

Lat­est stop on glam­orous global tour in Auck­land has po­ten­tial to be­come big­ger and bet­ter.

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT - Septem­ber 24, 2017

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.

DON­ALD MI­RALLE/GETTY IMAGES

New Zealand golfer Ly­dia Ko with LPGA Tour com­mis­sioner Michael Whan.

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