When Mike Whan took over as LPGA commissioner in 2009, he became the front man for an organization in shambles, whose relationships were in tatters and future was bleak.
But Whan set a goal for himself. Deliver 30 tournaments on the LPGA Tour schedule.
“My mind says 30 [is the right number],” Whan said in September 2010. “Typically, the top players play 25, maybe 26 times a year. A few will play every event you’ve got. I think when you have 34, 35, 36 events, you start worrying about your fields.”
With the release of the 2014 LPGA Tour schedule on Friday, Whan appears to have hit his target. Golfweek reports the schedule will feature 32 tournaments, including five new events, with a trio of new domestic events in Michigan, California and Alabama, as well a new event in China and the inaugural biennial LPGA International Crown.
Whan will be presenting a schedule rife with playing opportunities. More importantly, he’ll do so checking off an important caveat he’s always stipulated in replenishing the depleted, Great Recession-ravaged schedule he inherited from ousted commissioner Carolyn Bivens: adding as many, if not more, domestic events as foreign ones.
In sharing the 2011 schedule, the first under his watch after overseeing the Bivens-driven 23-event schedule in 2010, Whan preached patience, suggesting the domestic sponsorship environment still wasn’t right for LPGA growth. In fact, Whan was met with mixed reaction for the LPGA Founders Cup, a tournament in which players were expected to play for free. Then again, it wasn’t easy on foreign soil either. In order to keep the Evian family invested in its French showcase tournament, Whan was convinced to bump it up to major status two years hence (in 2013).
All told, the LPGA schedule actually contracted in ’11 with two events folding — one in Mexico because the event was to be played on the battleground of the national drug war, the other in China crushed by a state crackdown on illegal golf course development.
The next year was an improvement still, tacking on five new events against just one lost, including the resurrection of the popular Kingsmill event and three other new North American events. The Founder Cup got a real purse. The events were largely full-field affairs, offering the opportunities to play the tour’s rank-and-file had been denied for years in the trend to overseas expansion amid domestic contraction.
The 2013 schedule offered 28 events, netting one in total, including the additions of the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic and North Texas Shootout.
This year, the fourth under Whan’s direction, is the breakout year. Not only did Whan find a way to bump the total number of tournaments by four, he managed to keep the existing schedule largely intact — often as much a danger to the LPGA Tour schedule as finding new tournaments.
While a 32-event docket is still shy of the 34 the Tour offered in 2008, it’s close enough. Over $60 million was up for grabs in 2008, the most ever paid out in a single LPGA season. The 2013 docket offered a little over $49 million, meaning the net add of four events should get within a few million of that record. Again, close enough for Pentagon accountants, though Whan surely would love to bump those purses even further.
What Whan doesn’t want to do is water down the schedule with too many events, taking on low-quality sponsors for the sake of creating playing opportunities. He has maintained from the start that quality sponsors that truly want to partner with the LPGA will lead to a healthy schedule and long-term outlook for the tour. Cultivating and growing those relationships was Job 1 for Whan, who sought to take the opposite approach of the heavy-handed, almost adversarial manner in which Bivens dealt with sponsors.
Before Bivens, then-commissioner Ty Votaw was actually happy with losing three tournaments in the 2000 schedule. The drop went from 40 to 37, but the prize pool increased in over half of those events.
“The fact that quite probably we’ll have more money than we played for in 1999 suggests a great success story for us,” Votaw said. “We’d all like to work less weeks for more money, and we’re doing that.”
With the schedule at an optimal size by his estimation, Whan’s next goal in taking the sponsor relationships he has cultivated these last four years, as well as the tour he is guiding, to the next level.