The challenge faced by Whan 10 years ago upon arrival as commissioner of the women’s tour was child’s play compared with how the coronavirus pandemic has stunted the LPGA's growth
For the past decade, Mike Whan has been at the helm of the LPGA Tour, and in the process has become one of the most underrated leaders in all of professional sports.
Now he faces his toughest challenge yet, and it had nothing to do with his players, his decision-making or his team.
The coronavirus pandemic, known as COVID-19, already has had an unprecedented impact on how we conduct our lives – golf included. Whan is trying to navigate these turbulent waters like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” holding on to whatever he can after leaving the island where he made a home.
At the end of 2019, Whan signed a long-term agreement to remain as the commissioner of the LPGA Tour. He boasted that 19 of the 33 events on the 2020 schedule did not exist when he took over the tour in 2010. The amount of prize money, as well, has increased, from 47.6 million in 2009 to what would have been $75.1 million this year – $5.1 million more than 2019 – before coronavirus reduced the schedule.
The fact that Whan has been able to go from strength to strength with respect to global corporate support, increased TV opportunities and player awareness thanks to marketing home runs such as the tour’s new “Drive On” campaign from a year ago is a testament to his personability, negotiating prowess and the support he enjoys from his players.
But now what?
“We were COVID before COVID was cool, I guess, because nobody really knew what coronavirus was back in January when we first started talking to China, Thailand and Singapore about it,” Whan said to reporters on a conference call April 3.
“We passed on three events early in February, mostly because we didn’t know what we were dealing with, nor really did everybody else in terms of the severity. Obviously, things have got a lot more real the last couple of weeks here.”
That was approximately eight weeks ago.
Since then, the LPGA Tour has canceled 11 events – the latest being the Meijer LPGA Classic. More than 20 events on the tour’s schedule have been affected. After the 11 cancellations – including the UL International Crown, a biennial team event – 13 tournaments have also been rescheduled, the most notable being the U.S. Women’s Open, which is supposed to start Dec. 10.
The earliest the tour will return is July 23, at the Marathon Classic.
As of May 20, the tour announced there would be a freeze on players’ status for 2020, carrying over to 2021.
“Not knowing exactly when we'll play, what will happen with travel restrictions; knowing that there will still be changes, we really felt that the right thing to do was make sure that while COVID-19 is going to affect 2020 for everybody, it shouldn't affect your career,” Whan said.
A Golf Channel report, confirmed by an LPGA Tour spokesperson, said caddies would be optional if the tour returns in July. It’s a temporary option for players who don’t have a regular caddie – it’s meant to eliminate the variables surrounding local caddies – but could we start to see players choosing to lug their own lumber in order to save on a weekly cost?
The trickle-down effect has impacted those trying to get to the LPGA Tour, as well.
The developmental Symetra Tour, which has played only once this year, is down to just nine events for 2020. It announced May 21 that it had canceled two more and is now aiming to get started in late July.
Plus, the first and second stages of LPGA Q-School, traditionally held in the fall, and the Q-Series, originally scheduled for November, will not be held this year.
The LPGA Tour, to its credit, is trying a variety of ways to get its players involved with the general golf audience.
The tour has pitted golfers against one another via video games, such as the WGT by Topgolf (the first matchup featured sisters Nelly and Jessica Korda) or via simulator rounds (the first Golfzon LPGA Match Play Challenge has major champions Inbee Park and So Yeon Ryu, in South Korea, playing against Lydia Ko and Pernilla Lindberg, in Florida).
But what will the state of the world look like in midsummer, when the LPGA Tour is supposed to play golf in person again, and is scheduled to go through a seven-week stretch of events in five countries?
It’s not something that Whan – nor anyone, really – can answer. And it’s not the way Whan envisioned the first year of his new contract.
But one thing’s for sure: If there were someone you’d want leading your organization through a global pandemic, the LPGA Tour is lucky to have Whan guiding the way.
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