Thursday, December 14, 2017

LPGA leader keeps focus on players, not on politics

Mike Whan sat in a ninth-floor ballroom at the New York Athletic Club, his legs jiggling under the circular 10-seat table. Sitting still has never been Whan's strong suit, which partly explains his success as the Ladies Professional Golf Association commissioner. But Thursday, Whan's fidgetiness was fed by the feeling — a familiar one during his eventful eight-year tenure — that he needed to be in two places at once.

As Whan accepted the Vision Award, whose previous recipients include Don Garber of Major League Soccer and Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League, from Cynopsis Sports Media during a breakfast ceremony, an LPGA Tour event was under way in Hawaii without the world No. 6 Shanshan Feng, the highest-ranked player from China.

According to Reuters, Chinese sports officials encouraged Feng and three of her compatriots to boycott the event, which is sponsored by Lotte, a conglomerate based in South Korea, because that company had decided to provide land for the installation of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea. The positioning of the anti-missile technology, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, has drawn the ire of China, which is concerned that it is being used to spy on its territory.

The other players, Jing Yan, Xiyu Lin and Simin Feng, competed, and Whan wanted to be there to show his support for Lotte, a valued corporate partner of the LPGA. But even he grew fatigued by the prospect of an insomniac triangle of travel from his home in Florida to New York and Hawaii.

The proposed boycott of the Hawaii tournament was the latest in a series of contretemps that have placed the LPGA Tour squarely in the intersection of politics and sport, turning Whan into a traffic cop.

At the women's first event of the season in the United States, the Founders Cup last month in Phoenix, the women's rights group UltraViolet staged a protest over the decision to hold the U.S. Women's Open in July at a golf course owned by President Donald Trump. The demonstration included a plane that flew over the tournament site with a banner that read, "LPGA: Take a Mulligan. Dump Sexist Trump."

Referring to UltraViolet, Whan said: "It'd sure be nice to see a group like that spend the money it used on that plane on girls' sports. Give me that money and I'll get girls excited about the future of sports and business opportunities."

In a recent conversation with Mike Davis, the executive director and chief executive officer of the U.S. Golf Association, the organization that awarded the Women's Open to Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey, Whan said he had emphasized the bright side: "We'll have more media people at the U.S. Women's Open than we've ever had."

Whan, 52, is unapologetic about his mandate, which he described as "making sure the best players in the world have the most playing opportunities."

He added: "The LPGA doesn't have anything to prove about women's rights. I think our history speaks for itself. When I'm done being commissioner, if someone looks back and says, 'When Mike was caught in a crisis, he always chose the path of how he was going to protect the opportunity to play for his players,' I can live with that."

Whan has breathed life into a tour that was moribund when he took over. In 2011, his second year at the helm, the LPGA had 23 official events and $40 million in prize money. This year, it has 34 events offering $67 million, including a record $5 million purse with 30 hours of live television for the U.S. Women's Open. And according to the LPGA, the tour's televised hours have nearly doubled in the past six years, to more than 430 hours of coverage in 175 countries.

At the award ceremony, Whan was presented by Tom Quinlan, the chief executive and chairman of LSC Communications, who playfully asked Whan if he could open with a Lexi Thompson joke.

Whan was at home on the couch, tuned in to the final round of the ANA Inspiration two weeks ago, when Thompson received a retroactive four-stroke penalty. He watched the event unfold on his television screen with his smartphone to his ear as tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio filled him in.

A viewer watching the third-round telecast had gone to the LPGA website, scrolled down to the feedback form and reported a possible rules infraction by Thompson on the 17th green.

Whan, who read the email later, recalled that the writer, whom he described as a rules aficionado, couched the comments by saying, "I'm not sure that I'm right, but I think it might be worth taking a look at."

The LPGA receives fewer than one viewer email regarding rules infractions per tournament, Whan said, adding that 95 percent of the inquiries have no merit. But this one did. Thompson was in the middle of her final round when the viewer's email was forwarded to Daly-Donofrio and rules official Sue Witters. After reviewing video, Witters determined that Thompson, the 54-hole leader, had misplaced, by roughly a half-inch, her marked ball on the 17th green.

Thompson was leading by two strokes when she was approached on the course by Witters, who informed her that she was being assessed four penalty strokes — two for improperly marking her ball and two for signing an incorrect scorecard.

A tearful Thompson played her final six holes in two under to force a playoff with So Yeon Ryu, who won on the first extra hole. "It felt like a nobody-win situation," said Whan, who phoned Ryu the next morning to say that he was sorry her victory did not feel the way it should have.

He also called Thompson, whose phone went straight to voice mail, then wrote her a letter saying that he was proud of the character she exhibited after becoming the latest to run afoul of golf's arcane rules.

The tournament's ending became a major talking point, but not in a way that would make a commissioner proud. The next morning, Whan was taking out his garbage when he was confronted by a neighbor who said, "Seriously, can't you do something?"

In a subsequent radio interview, Whan described the rules imbroglio as embarrassing and added, "It's one of those situations where the penalty does not match the crime."

Three days after the tournament, Whan reiterated his mortification in a meeting at Augusta National with the heads of the USGA, the R&A, and the PGA and European Tours before the 81st Masters. He advocated an immediate revision of the rules to make sure no one is ever put in Thompson's position. "I walked out of that meeting feeling optimistic," Whan said. "I expected pushback, and I got just the opposite."

In his acceptance speech, Whan described the Vision Award as a team effort and explained that his leadership style took root during youth football tryouts. Whan said he grew dejected when he overheard the coach telling his father that he wasn't the biggest, fastest, strongest or most talented player — but that he would try him at quarterback because he seemed to be able to absorb a lot of information and convey clear directions to the other players.

Whan said his father told him that the coach had paid him a compliment because every team needs someone to get the ball to the players who are the biggest, fastest, strongest and most talented.

Decades later, Whan prides himself on focusing the spotlight on his players. On tournament weeks, he meets with sponsors, event officials and volunteers, and players, then leaves when the competition commences.

"I don't want the sponsor to hand me the microphone on Sunday or tell me to get in on a picture with the winner," Whan said. "Once the tournament starts, it should be all about the players."

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