Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2021

Out Of The LPGA Frying Pan, Into The USGA Fire

The attention of most golf fans this weekend was on the Workday Championship at The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton Florida. That is hardly a surprise, since the PGA Tour dominates coverage of the sport and this week’s tournament had the added cachet of being one of the four World Golf Championship events.

Not yet fifteen years old, The Concession was co-designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin, who share a page in golf’s history book from the 1969 Ryder Cup, when Nicklaus conceded Jacklin’s putt for a halve on the final hole, ensuring the matches would end in a tie between the United States team and the one from Great Britain and Ireland – thus the club’s name. The private links was a substitute location for the WGC tournament, pressed into service when pandemic travel restrictions ruled out playing in Mexico as originally planned. Fans watching the NBC broadcast got to see a devilish course, one that yielded bushels of birdies to players who kept their shots in the fairways while enacting brutal punishment on any golfer who strayed out of position. The result was a range of scoring that literally went from one to ten on individual holes, before Collin Morikawa finally held off Viktor Hovland, Brooks Koepka, and Billy Horschel to win for the fourth time in his still young PGA Tour career.

But if The Concession hosted this weekend’s main event, an important tournament on the undercard was played less than a two-hour drive inland, at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando. Twenty years older than its Bradenton counterpart, Lake Nona is also an exclusive private layout, one that boasts multiple PGA Tour and LPGA players among its members. The club was the site of the inaugural Solheim Cup in 1990, and this weekend saw the best women golfers in the world return for the Gainbridge LPGA, the second tournament on this year’s LPGA calendar. Just like Morikawa, Nelly Korda converted a 54-hole lead into a three-shot victory Sunday afternoon.

The Gainbridge was also the first event on the women’s tour since LPGA commissioner Michael Whan, who announced just after New Year’s that he was stepping down, was named the next CEO of the United States Golf Association. As such, it was a useful measuring stick of Whan’s impact on the tour during his decade-plus in charge. The tournament was a full-field, 72-hole event, with 121 players teeing off in Thursday’s opening round. Those golfers were pursuing a share of a $2 million purse, which while a fraction of the riches that the men of the PGA Tour were playing for down I-4 a bit, is a healthy number for a LPGA event in just its second year of existence. More important, the Gainbridge LPGA is one of 34 tournaments on this year’s calendar, events that will pay out more than $78 million in prize money.

To put those numbers in context, when Whan was named the LPGA’s eighth commissioner in 2010, the tour was in crisis. The disastrous leadership of Carole Bivens coupled with loss of numerous tournament sponsors because of the recession had combined to strip the tour of multiple events while shrinking purses of those that remained, even as players revolted against the attempt by Bivens to compel every golfer in a heavily international membership to speak English. In his first year at the helm, Whan presided over a schedule that included only 24 events, with total purses just barely over $40 million.

As crucial as his efforts guiding the tour’s economic recovery have been, Whan’s greatest contributions are not measured, at least directly, in dollars. The LPGA assumed management of the developmental Symetra Tour and turned it into a stable and viable circuit. Less than two years ago he forged an alliance with the struggling Ladies European Tour that should ensure expanded playing opportunities for players on the other side of the Atlantic. Whan also focused the tour’s leadership on supporting the Girls Golf Program that the LPGA runs in conjunction with the USGA. The result has been exponential growth, from 5,000 young players when Whan became commissioner to 90,000 now. And he has also constantly engaged with and empowered his players, understanding that fans don’t come out to a tournament or turn on their flatscreens to watch the commissioner of any sports league.

Because the LPGA’s 2020 calendar had several events in Asia late last winter, it was one of the first major sports leagues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. After the Australian Open in mid-February, the next nine tournaments were canceled, while Whan worked with his team and the leadership of other golf tours to figure out how and when play could be resumed. The LPGA eventually returned in late July, but even then Whan had to juggle the rest of the schedule and work to retain sponsor commitments for 2021 and beyond. That he succeeded is evidenced by this year’s tour calendar.

Now Whan takes on a vastly different challenge. As one the sport’s two rule-making bodies, along with the R&A, the USGA is viewed by many golfers as stodgy and arbitrary, intent on taking fun out of the game, whether through convoluted rules interpretations or its recent focus on finding ways to limit the distance modern club technology allows players to hit the ball. As more than one professional instructor has pointed out, no amateur ever begins a golf lesson complaining that his or her problem is hitting the ball too far.

In eleven years at the LPGA, Whan reinvigorated the organization and developed a culture that was open, inclusive, and forward-thinking. If he can do the same in an association that has for years been symbolized by the rigid formality of its trademark blue blazers, he will be hailed by golfers everywhere, tour professionals and weekend hackers alike. The question is, will Michael Whan change the USGA, or will it change him?

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