Commissioner Mike Whan will leave a revitalized women’s tour, but LPGA owes it to its players and supporters to hire a female
Whan, who said a month later that he would be taking the top job at the USGA, inherited a mess at the LPGA in 2010 after former commissioner Carolyn Bivens had taken a promising tour and run it into the ground.
Starting in 2005, Bivens seemingly gave the LPGA what it needed: its first female commissioner, and one with a background in media and marketing. In replacing Ty Votaw, a current PGA Tour executive who did a commendable job as head of the LPGA, the women’s tour was poised to move forward by expanding in the commercial marketplace. Picking a female to head the premier women’s tour for the first time made sense, considering the longstanding question about why only men among her six predecessors had run the LPGA since its founding in 1950.
In choosing Bivens, the LPGA thought it had picked the right person, but her tenure proved to be a disaster for the tour. The LPGA regressed from a 35-tournament schedule with total prize money of $45.1 million in 2005 to a tour with only 28 events worth $47.6 million in 2009. A player revolt led to her forced resignation in July 2009. With her exit, any notion about promoting women to run the organization became far less urgent as an organizational strategy. The LPGA found itself in survival mode.
When Whan took over as the LPGA’s eighth commissioner on Jan. 4, 2010, he brought a golf background from years in the C-suites of equipment manufacturers Wilson and TaylorMade. More importantly, he offered an ability to work with potential sponsors, the lifeblood of professional golf.
The rudderless LPGA also learned that Whan was no pushover and would bring in his own people to accomplish the task of turning around the world’s largest women’s golf organization.
Looking back on the transition, it’s clear that Whan accomplished a lot. This year, for example, the tour will feature 34 tournaments for a record $76.45 million in prize money. Yet, Whan concedes that much work remains to be done. One key area: the tournament prize fund. By comparison, the PGA Tour will play 50 tournaments worth an estimated $450 million this season. Whan also points to the need for increased recognition of women’s sports as a key to building the LPGA operationally and financially.
One way to help achieve those goals would be to restore a woman to the commissioner’s job at the LPGA. Whan gave no indication of that criterion as a priority in the search, but it would seem to be a natural progression for the organization.
“The LPGA is going to be run by women,” Whan said when announcing his pending resignation. “It is today and will be in the future. So, if the next person doesn't get that, they'll be miserable.”
The seven-member search committee consists of Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, the LPGA’s player president; Marvol Bernard, the LPGA professionals’ president; players Juli Inkster and Alena Sharp; LPGA board president Diane Gulyas; and board members Jon Iwata and John Veihmeyer.
Unlike in 2005, the LPGA has much more to offer a highly competent woman as its leader.
Though Bivens might have been qualified on paper, she never was a good fit. Her hardline “English only” language mandate backfired on a tour that increasingly was being dominated by a surge of Asian talent, particularly from South Korea.
Now, the LPGA has a deep pool of qualified candidates, male and female, who should be attracted to the job. Two women stand out: Roberta Bowman, the LPGA’s chief brand and communications officer, and Alex Baldwin, the president of the PGA Tour’s developmental Korn Ferry Tour.
After a six-year stint on the LPGA’s board of directors, Bowman joined the LPGA full-time in October 2018 in a position created by Whan. She oversees communications, public relations, television, website/digital, social media, branding, marketing and the LPGA’s creative department.
"Roberta is one of the best strategic-thinkers I’ve ever met, and she’s had a long and successful history in leading communications and marketing,” Whan said of his new hire, whom he had to coax out of retirement.
Bowman, 65, has been part of the executive leadership team, so with her move into the top spot, she would not miss a beat regarding Whan’s initiatives and how the organization operates.
In some ways, it would be a continuation of the Whan regime. With her 25-plus years of experience in the corporate world, including more recently at publicly traded Duke Energy, Bowman certainly would have her own ideas, as well.
Because Bowman was persuaded to come out of retirement, and the fact that she says she is not under consideration, it might be a big hurdle for her to run the organization. It also is possible that her love of the LPGA might compel her to accept the challenge.
Baldwin, 49, has a seemingly perfect resume for the LPGA. Since starting as an intern at IMG in 1992, she has held numerous sports-marketing jobs, with IMG, CCA and Fenway Sports Management. She moved to the PGA Tour in 2017 as vice president of corporate partnerships, working with companies such as Morgan Stanley, Dell, Omni Hotels and Resorts, United Airlines, Avis, MD Anderson, Rolex and Citi.
Since Jan. 30, 2019, she has led the Korn Ferry Tour, the top feeder circuit for the PGA Tour. Her experience and corporate background would be an asset to the LPGA as it transitions into a post-Whan era.
If you were drawing up the criteria of the job of LPGA commissioner, Baldwin’s resume would fulfill the needs.
Baldwin or Bowman would be an excellent pick and should be at the top of any potential list.
So, why isn’t Suzy Whaley on my short list? As the first female president of the PGA of America, Whaley also has roots on the LPGA, briefly as a player before she moved into teaching the game.
Though Whaley possesses the golf background, she is woefully out of her depths on the corporate side. And though her accomplishments are many while an officer at the PGA of America, none seems to indicate she could take on the significant role of being responsible for the financial viability of the organization.
There are many women qualified to become LPGA commissioner, but filling Whan’s shoes will be difficult. He has created a culture of trumpeting women’s sports, and though he did it as a man, it’s time for another woman to take on the role and flourish.
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