Eight years after taking the helm as LPGA commissioner, Mike Whan has driven the number of tour events from 23 to 35. He launched the 2017 season with a record $67 million in official prize money and finds the tour enjoying six consecutive years of television viewership growth. The former Procter & Gamble brand manager and TaylorMade-Adidas Golf executive vice president helped bring golf to the Rio Olympics last year and has developed programming that’s grown the annual number of junior girls introduced to the game tenfold during his tenure. He was recently named chairman of the World Golf Foundation for 2017. On National Golf Day
, he discusses the state of the women’s game.
Tell us about your new role chairing the World Golf Foundation.
The World Golf Foundation is made up of board members of the largest stakeholders in the game. The PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, the European Tour, the R&A, the USGA, PGA America, etc. We focus on three major things: [growing] the game initiatives we all need, the World Golf Hall of Fame and how to best position golf by understanding where the game stands on a global basis.
The WGF is one of the reasons golf at the Olympics was such a realistic vision because that group was already getting together and made a bid to enter the Olympics for Rio 2016. If you jump back eight or nine years ago, that was a bold step. I'm flattered by the chair position, but the truth of the matter is it's a rotating position. We all take turns leading.
How has the LPGA Tour evolved during your tenure?
When I started in 2010, North America was frozen in a deep recession. It was tough. Now, I'm enjoying problems I never thought I’d have like schedule congestion, too many events that want the same time, rising purses and challenges with our global TV agreements in terms of how to keep everybody happy. We're playing 35 times; 170 countries are watching; and our purses are 70 percent higher.
How are you reaching youth?
If you want to change the face of golf, it's going to start by changing how 12-, 13- and 14-year-old females feel about this game, and then their introduction to the game. We ran a program with the USGA [to introduce] about 5,000 girls under the age of 14 to the game per year in the U.S. I said, "Bring me a plan that shows by the time I stand up at the podium in Rio, I can say 50,000 girls per year in America are being introduced to this game." If a quarter of a million girls are being introduced every five years, now we've got something that's game-changing.
Last year, we introduced 62,000 girls to the game. Now we've set the goal of 100,000 per year by the time we get to the Olympics in Japan. If you look at the actual U.S. numbers for girls under the age of 18 playing the game, that number is up 81 percent in the last five years. If you ask, "How do you feel about the future of the game in 10 to 15 years?" I'd say, "Great because the future of the game is currently 12 or 8 or 9."
How do you characterize the appetite for golf?
When I left the industry in 1999, there were about 25 million people playing golf, and when I came back there were still 25 million people playing golf. The exciting thing for me is when I came back we had identified there were another 37 million people saying, “I really want to take up golf, or get more involved in golf long term.” What any sport wants is latent demand. We're coming off six years of viewership increases and corporate spending increases. The interest in the game is as high as ever, and this is especially true on a global basis.
How’s your game?
It's great in the offseason. I have a teacher here in Orlando who’s worked with me for four years. I see her every Thanksgiving, and then by mid-January she'll say, "See you at Thanksgiving." I'll come back the next Thanksgiving and she'll say, "My God, what’s happened to you?" because, after nine months of not playing, my game is a complete mess again.