And now let’s talk about Mike Whan, the new CEO of the United States Golf Association. But we better talk fast, because Whan moves – and talks – fast.
Do not give this man caffeine, or any other stimulants. He doesn’t need it, as he knows only one gear: Overdrive. Pedal to the metal. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.
On November 8, Whan held court at the opening session of the annual International Association of Golf Administrators (IAGA) conference, held this year at the Westin Stonebriar Resort on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. The IAGA is made up of golf administrators of state and regional amateur golf associations and other national and international golf-related organizations.
Whan’s session was moderated by Beth Major, the USGA’s senior director of communications, and although this was technically supposed to be a Q&A session with Whan, she only occasionally managed to get a word in. The audience of golf administrators should have all been wearing seatbelts.
Whan took over the top spot at the USGA this past summer, replacing Mike Davis, who had served since 2011 as executive director and then as CEO.
And Whan came ready to rock and roll. Literally. All doubt about this was dispelled in late October at the USGA’s first in-person all-staff meeting held at the association’s headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. since 2019 (thanks COVID). Whan was introduced at that meeting to the pounding music of the heavy-metal rock band AC/DC.
“That probably hasn’t happened in the 127 years of USGA history,” Whan said with a laugh in his address at the IAGA conference. “We’re here to make the game fun.”
The sense of urgency that exudes from Whan is palpable. “I’m 56 years old,” he said. “I’m not going to be doing this when I’m 66. So I figure I have six or seven years to make this a better game. Better for my kids, my kids’ kids, and so on.”
Whan becomes just the eighth leader in the history of the USGA, which was founded in 1894. Prior to coming to the USGA, Whan was the commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) for 11 years. While at the LPGA, Whan increased the number of tournaments on the LPGA Tour’s schedule to 34 from 24, increased purses from $41.4 million to $76.5 million, and grew television hours from 125 hours per season to more than 500 hours. Under his leadership, the LPGA became a truly global business – with players, tournaments, sponsors and fans coming from all over the world. Currently, the LPGA Tour is televised in over 170 countries each week.
Whan’s leadership resulted in the expansion of the LPGA to now include both the Symetra Tour and a recently announced joint venture with the Ladies European Tour, as well as a nearly 50 percent increase in the LPGA’s teaching division. Whan’s focus on growing the game for junior girls has led to a significant expansion of the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program, which had 5,000 members when he joined the organization to 90,000 girls now engaged in the program.
With that background, it is fairly clear what Whan brings to the table, and what will be expected of him – expand the exposure and reach of the USGA’s programs and initiatives, and grow its partnerships. He has said that he’ll mostly leave the USGA’s championship department alone. “You guys are all good, all set,” he has said.
The USGA annually conducts 14 national championships, and has recently secured long-term multi-year commitments with “anchor sites” for some of its championships, specifically its marquee championship, the U.S. Open – historic venues such as Merion, Oakmont and Pinehurst No. 2 have so far been selected, with other announcements expected. This means the USGA will build infrastructure and have a larger presence at these venues to make hosting easier, as opposed to going to a new site every year and starting from scratch.
To describe the approach he has used throughout his career, and will use during his time at the head of the USGA, Whan explained his own experience as an athlete.
“I played football in high school,” he said to the IAGA conference attendees. “I was the quarterback, and really just an average player. The coach told me don’t worry about it, that my role was to get the ball from my hands into the hands of other more talented players. And that’s how I see my role at the USGA, to get the resources, personnel and expertise into your hands, so that you can thrive in your work.”
Talking in rapid-fire recollection about his professional successes prior to his role at the LPGA, Whan said his sports business career began at Wilson Sporting Goods as a vice president and general manager in the golf division. He joined the TaylorMade Golf Company as vice president of marketing in 1995 and later served as vice president of sales and marketing and executive vice president/general manager for TaylorMade-adidas Golf. In 2002, Whan became the president and CEO of Mission Hockey, a hockey equipment company, which he left just prior to signing on as commissioner of the LPGA.
“I didn’t succeed because I had a good idea or had a lot of money,” he said. “I succeeded because I got in and got my hands dirty.”
And he’s ready to bring that approach to the USGA.
“As someone who grew up loving this game, I have always had huge respect for the USGA and its role in leading our sport,” said Whan, when he was first announced as the new CEO. “The game has given me so much throughout my life, both personally and professionally. I know I have a lot to learn, but I’m truly excited about this role, as it gives me the opportunity to not only give back to the game, but to also work hard to leave it stronger.”
It’s going to be a heckuva ride.
Tom Cade is the editor of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, published by the Pacific Northwest Golf Association. From 2010-2015 he served as president of the Northwest Golf Media Association, and in 2016 received the NWGMA Distinguished Service Award. He was the editor and publisher of America’s St. Andrews, the book about Chambers Bay and the 2015 U.S. Open. He also was editor of the centennial history book for Inglewood Golf Club (published 2019), and editor of the forthcoming centennial history book of Washington Golf. He is a regular member of the Golf Writers Association of America.