How Mike Whan Is Changing US Golf

The United States is returning this week to the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., One of the five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association. It will be the club’s fourth US Open. Its first, in 1913, when a 20-year-old amateur won, still lives in sports lore.

The club has also hosted several United States Amateur and United States Women’s Amateur tournaments and a Ryder Cup. Founded in the 19th century, it has deep traditions.

But this time around, the United States Golf Association, which chooses clubs and organizers at the US Open and 13 other national championships each year, has a new chief executive at its helm who has cultivated a reputation for being a traditionalist. The executive, Mike Whan, is a changemaker, in the parlance of the corporate marketing world he came up with.

For 11 years before joining the USGA last year, Whan was the Commissioner of the LPGA, taking it from a struggling US-based entity to a thriving global tour with more events and more prize money.

“He rebuilt the tour, and then reimagined its future, bringing new events, new sponsors and a new value proposition around diversity and inclusion to the LPGA,” said Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, president of the LPGA Tour’s player, when Whan stepped down. “He has that rare ability to get people of all ages and backgrounds excited and on board with his vision.”

While the USGA attracts criticism like any governing body, it has created a wildly lucrative event in the US Open, the revenue from which funds fund most of the organization’s other championships and initiatives around turf grass and water conservation.

Compared with the PGA Tour, the USGA looks even better. The PGA Tour, whose playing privileges have long been the goal of professional golfers, is fending off an attack on its status by the new Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, which has lured away many players.

Add in one more factor: Interesting golf from recreational players is still riding a post-pandemic high. If it doesn’t break, as the saying goes, what does Whan have to fix?

“Change is the process,” Whan said in an interview at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. “A 35-year-old Mike Whan would have changed everything. The 57-year-old Mike Whan says, ‘Where am I needed?’ I don’t need championship setup. That was Mike Davis’ specialty. “

Davis was Whan’s predecessor, a 31-year veteran of the USGA who served as its executive director and then chief executive. He pushed for changes to course setups and tried new things like rough heights and giving public courses, including Erin Hills in Wisconsin and Chambers Bay in Washington, a chance at hosting a US Open.

Davis was given different approaches to championships, some more successful than others, but also for investing in some of the lesser public research projects that the USGA funds. But Davis was also criticized, for how he set up courses (too hard) and for how the union regulated equipment (not tightly enough).

“Their No. 1 job should be controlling the equipment, “said Alex Miceli, a longtime golf commentator, referring to the debate over the distance a pro can hit a ball. “The USGA did a terrific job with that. It’s like the Federal Reserve saying, ‘Inflation is going to be transitory, inflation is going to be transitory, inflation is going to be transitory.’ Well, it is not. “

Whan said in the interview that he had no interest wading into the course setup debate. That ‘s the domain of John Bodenhamer, the association’s chief championships officer.

“When I walked into a setup meeting, I said to John, ‘I’m not necessary here, and I might be a detriment,'” Whan said. “The only guidance I’ve given is once you have a plan or a strategy, don’t change it. Don’t let scores or media change it. Athletes don’t want that. I know that from being the LPGA commissioner. “

Yet when Whan came on board last year’s US Open, several senior USGA executives left, leaving the chief commercial officer in charge on Whan’s first day and the chief brand officer leaving about a month later.

Whan then did something that no association executive has done: He brought in a title sponsor for one of the organization’s marquee championships. The United States Women’s Open, which dates from 1946, is now the US Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica. The partnership with the health care company doubles the purse to $ 10 million. When the Australian golfer Minjee Lee won the championship this month, she took home a record $ 1.8 million first-place check.

Whan said in the interview that his focus was on improving the important things the association did that no one saw.

“On planes, I’d get the question, ‘What does the USGA do?'” He said, pulling out a card with “USGA” written down the side. “I came up with Unify, Showcase, Governance and Advance.”

And for him the last one is a priority. “‘Advance’ was the big one that was missing,” he said. “We don’t want to preserve; We are preserved croquet and that is not good. “

Big areas of investment are strategies to reduce water use and develop junior golfers the way other countries do.

While Whan said he had no desire to tinker with the US Open, he was also not about to neglect the tournament that brings in about 75 percent of the organization’s revenue.

“The key is not to take it for granted,” he said, drawing a comparison to professional bowling, which dominated weekly television time when he was a child, but has fallen off drastically. “If we take it for granted, there’s no reason we can’t end up like bowling.”

He repeated an off-telling story about Jason Gore, a former PGA Tour player who is the senior director’s player relations at the USGA where the players won their US Opens affairs, Gore told him.

While the men’s side is sewed up with stern tests for the next decade, including Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach and Merion, Whan has made a push for equally prestigious sites for the US Women’s Open, with Riviera, Merion, Pinehurst and Pebble. Beach on the roster.

These sites have come with USGA investments. At Pinehurst, the association is building a second headquarters. At Pebble Beach, it’s a permanent player pavilion, which the course can use for other events. Taking a long-term view, the organization has made capital improvements to a host site; In the past it has put up and taken down structures.

These initiatives are meant to make it easier for the US Open, an immense logistical undertaking that ties up courses for months, to come back year after year. But it also has sites to host other events and work toward its goal of advancing other initiatives.

“I don’t need US Open partners,” Whan said. “I need partners in the game. We want to make sure these cathedrals of golf are not the only host of responsibility for the golf and the most financially lucrative events. “

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