When Amy Olson went to play golf at North Dakota State in 2009, she didn’t know if the L.P.G.A. Tour would be there for her when she graduated. Many had feared that the women’s tour was on the verge of folding, after it lost 10 events from 2008 to 2010 while the total annual prize purse went from $60.3 million to $41.4 million.
But the tour made a prescient hire in 2010, plucking Michael Whan from the world of corporate marketing to take over as commissioner. In the ensuing decade, Whan resurrected the top women’s golf tour in the world. The 2021 season is set for 34 events — 12 of them outside the United States — for a total purse of $76.5 million.
Olson joined the tour full time in 2014 and has 12 career top-10 finishes, which include a tie for second at the United States Open last month, and over $2 million in earnings.
“That’s the story of hundreds of girls around the world who wanted to play golf at the highest level,” said Olson, 28, who is a player representative on the tour’s board of directors. “Mike gave us that opportunity.”
Whan has now decided it is time to move on, after the longest and arguably the most successful run as L.P.G.A. commissioner. Last week he reached out to players and sponsors with whom he has established close friendships to let them know that he was stepping down, before the news release went out on Jan. 6. Whan, who did not give a specific reason for his departure, plans stay on the job awhile, to help find his successor. His next job is unclear.
“I like to live my life pretty nervous, and I haven’t been really nervous in a while,” Whan said at the news conference to announce his decision. “I want to get back to that.”
The United States Golf Association, the governing body of the sport that runs the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, announced in September that its chief executive, Mike Davis, would step down at the end of 2021. When asked if he would pursue that position, Whan demurred.
“I think for any job — that one certainly included — requires a cleanse of my brain,” Whan said.
Before joining the L.P.G.A., Whan, 55, worked on both sides of sponsorship sales, in the golf divisions at Wilson Sporting Goods and TaylorMade. He knew companies could find value in connecting with women, and he believed that the L.P.G.A. Tour belonged at the forefront of their marketing plans.
“He has rebranded the L.P.G.A.,” Olson said. “It’s not just about us pursuing our dream. It’s now about women and women’s empowerment, and giving girls opportunities. That resonates so strongly with corporations.”
For example, Whan worked with KPMG and the P.G.A. of America to rebrand and revitalize one of the women’s five major championships, arranging the inaugural KPMG Women’s P.G.A. Championship at Westchester Country Club in 2015. It was the first L.P.G.A. event to include a women’s leadership summit, and more than a dozen such events are now associated with tournaments throughout the calendar.
“It completely changed the way that Mike sold to sponsors,” said Shawn Quill, the managing director at KPMG in charge of sports sponsorships. “He embraced what we were doing, and it led to a complete change in what the value proposition was for the L.P.G.A. Tour.”
Players say Whan’s impact wasn’t limited to the tour’s relationship with sponsors. The players, both current and retired, felt a connection to their fast-speaking, self-deprecating commissioner. He created many catchy nicknames — Olson was “headband” because of her penchant for wearing the accessory as a rookie — and he constantly wrote thank-you notes.
Whan kept players top of mind as he deftly led the Tour through the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, publicly lobbying sponsors to pay their athletes even when they were not competing in the contractually required number of tournaments for the year. There was no reduction in purses for the 18 events that were played, and every tournament sponsor is set to return for 2021. When tournaments resumed, safety protocols yielded only 42 positive coronavirus tests out of the approximately 7,200 that were given throughout the year.
Communication and transparency were the two words players repeatedly used to describe Whan’s tenure, which has had a personal touch they say will be sorely missed.
The tour veteran Christina Kim remembered that when Whan was first hired, she was playing in an event in South Korea. At 3 a.m., her phone started ringing like crazy. She finally sent a text that said: “Who are you? Please stop calling me.” Whan responded that he was the new commissioner and wanted to say hello, so Kim got out of bed and called back, starting a warm relationship.
“He provided us with the knowledge that we needed to know where the Tour was and where the Tour was headed,” Kim said. “He gave us the ability to not only believe in his desires and wishes and ability for the L.P.G.A., but he made us believe that we mattered.”
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