LPGA commissioner Michael Whan admits he's "not a long-term thinking guy." But the way he has resuscitated the tour during his five-plus years in office has resulted in more tournaments, a record purse for 2015 and new ideas to continue to grow the association.
A bad economy combined with some controversial decisions from his predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, had the LPGA reeling when he took over in 2010. But his passion and his acumen in strengthening the schedule and bringing more sponsors on board earned him a second contract extension this year that runs through 2020.
"I really feel there's a lot left on the table," Whan, 50, said last month in a telephone interview. "I feel like if I left now, I'd be leaving it incomplete, at least to my own expectations. That's what I said to the [LPGA] board: 'If you think it's time, I'm happy to step out of the way. If you don't, I wouldn't feel like I finished the project.'
"The board said to me, 'If you've lost passion for the job, we can't tell.' I said 'I haven't lost any enthusiasm for what I'm doing.' "
From a low of 22 tournaments in 2010 and 23 in 2011, the 2015 tour has 33 events and a record $61.6 million in prize money. Whan fortified two of the LPGA's five majors, finding a new sponsor for the Kraft Nabisco - now called the ANA Inspiration - and rebranding the LPGA Championship as the KPMG Women's PGA Championship, played for the first time last month with a total purse of $3.5 million.
With a strong schedule and stability with the majors, Whan is changing his focus to growing existing tournaments and helping players on the lower end of the LPGA money scale.
"In the beginning, the most important thing was to build a strong, robust and kind of reasonable schedule," he said. "Then it was to make sure our majors were stable. Now for the first time in my six years on the job, I'm really going to spend more time focused on the tournaments we have than the business we don't have."
He also wants to find more opportunities for women to succeed financially, with more events on the developmental Symetra Tour and increased TV exposure that helps a player make more money with endorsements on her hat or her bag.
"Being in the top 150 players on the planet ought to at least be a career that's financially sound," he said. "I think that if you're top 70, you probably say no doubt. But if you're not, you probably say you're borderline at best. I can't leave it when it's like that."
As for higher purses, they are not dictated by the LPGA, Whan said, but by the sponsors "to have both an impact on the players and an impact on the media . . . wanting to make sure they get the best field possible."
Whan feels his model in the relationship between sponsors and players is an ideal one, something "customer-centric," where everyone involved with the LPGA pays attention "to the people who write the checks."
A former check-writer himself, Whan said every player entered in a tournament receives a two-page customer profile sheet providing the name of the sponsor, what is important to his or her company, photos of key officials, suggested postings on Twitter or Facebook and "the three things we need from you this week."
"I don't think when Lebron [James] showed up for a playoff game, nobody told him the things he needed to do with check-writers," Whan said. "People chuckle when I say that. But as long as that's laughable for the other sports I compete with, I'm going to keep growing."
Whan said the LPGA continues to capitalize on its global reach with players from almost 30 countries, television in 170 countries and a website "in so many different languages." He feels the association will benefit even more in 2016 when the Olympics will include golf for the first time since 1904 as countries increase their financial commitment to the game.
Regarding this week's U.S. Women's Open at Lancaster Country Club, the commissioner is thrilled by the interest in the championship. More than 100,000 people are expected to attend during the week.
"You're going to see probably the most fans you've seen at a major in a lot of years," he said. "I think we're going to have an incredible hometown and 100-mile surrounding area calling. Quite frankly, we love that at the LPGA. That's exciting for the players to play in."