News & Opinion

Mike Whan will leave LPGA as a transformed tour

Mike Whan
Mike Whan, who recently announced his resignation as LPGA commissioner, will become the CEO of the USGA this summer.

11-year commissioner, who says he will resign on an undetermined date in 2021, lifts women’s tour to new heights amid pandemic

For 11 years, Mike Whan has run the LPGA Tour, transforming a second-rate circuit into a premier sports property and a beacon for women’s sports worldwide. Now, Whan has decided it’s time for someone else to move the ball forward.

On Wednesday, the 55-year-old commissioner announced his resignation, at a date in 2021 yet to be determined.

What started for Whan as a job in 2010 evolved into a mission.

Despite the very real stresses of the pandemic, which prompted the LPGA to cancel 18 tournaments last year, Whan will leave with a sense of satisfaction. He proudly watched his management team navigate an unprecedented time through a global COVID-19 pandemic that is ongoing.

Chief executives often are judged not so much by their accomplishments but whether they left the organization in better shape than they found it. By that measure, Whan excelled by creating a culture of ownership within the LPGA.

It would be easy to write about Whan and his accomplishments during his 11-year tenure. He rescued the LPGA after a tumultuous four-year run under Carolyn Bivens, which was marked by declining sponsorship and a player revolt that ended in mid-2009 with her forced resignation.

Whan, the longest-serving commissioner in LPGA history, leaves the tour in a much better place than when he found it in January 2010. The LPGA recently announced a 34-tournament schedule and a record $76.45 million in prize money.

“I've told people before, at 40 years old, I probably would have been offended how good the team ran without me,” Whan said. “At 55, I was really both blessed and honored, so it was time. It's not a great time. I know we're still working through the pandemic, and I'm going to be here to help us work through that. But I don't know that there was a great time.”

In a letter to the LPGA’s staff, players and sponsors, Whan wrote, “One of the hardest jobs of a leader is to know when their work is done. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught me anything, it was that the LPGA executive staff has full control of our business and is capable of incredible things.”

Whan said he likes to live his professional life nervously and that nervousness has been lacking recently. He wants to restore that feeling, which was his guiding principle in deciding that it was time to move on.

“I'm not exactly sure where that's going to take me,” he said, “but every time I've been this nervous in the past, the outcome has been pretty exciting.”

The next step for the LPGA, according to board member Diane Gulyas, will be to work with its recently formed search committee and hire an executive search firm. Under a loose timeline, the LPGA hopes to reach a decision by the end of March and have the new commissioner onboard in the second quarter of 2021.

Whan isn’t certain when he will leave, but he wants to assist in the search for a new commissioner. Whan says he has no job in hand and is uncertain whether he might remain in golf.

One high-profile position that is soon to come open will be the head of the USGA. Mike Davis, the chief executive of golf’s governing body for the U.S. and Mexico, announced his departure, to take effect by the end of the year.

Whan mentioned a need for some downtime for “a cleanse of my brain.”

“I feel like there will be opportunities,” he said. “Probably there will be opportunities in golf, and I certainly think there will be opportunities in sport that are worth a solid look on both sides.”

Whan conceded that he might not be an ideal cultural fit at certain places.

“I think when I find the right fit and the right business, I'll want to attack it full scale,” Whan said. “But I feel like I need to get through this transition, to be fair to somebody else.”

No matter when Whan might leave, he not only will have left the LPGA in a better place but will be a tremendous addition to any organization or company.

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