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How Mike Whan is changing American golf

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The US Open returns this week to the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, one of the five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association. It will be the club’s fourth US Open. The first, in 1913, when a 20-year-old amateur won, still lives on in the sporting tradition.

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

But this time, the United States Golf Association, which selects the clubs and hosts the US Open and 13 other national championships each year, is headed by a new CEO who has earned a reputation for being everything contrary to a traditionalist. The executive, Mike Whan, is a change maker, in the jargon of the corporate marketing world in which he grew up.

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For 11 years before joining the USGA last year, Whan was the LPGA’s commissioner, taking it from a struggling US-based entity to a thriving world 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, LPGA President of Players. Tour, when Whan resigned. “He has this rare ability to get people of all ages and backgrounds excited and joining in on his vision.”

While the USGA draws criticism like any governing body, it has created a wildly lucrative event at the US Open, the proceeds of which fund most of the organization’s other championships and initiatives around turf and water conservation.

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

Add one more factor: Interest in golf from recreational players is still at an all-time high after the pandemic. If it ain’t broke, as the saying goes, what’s Whan got to fix?

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

Davis was Whan’s predecessor, a 31-year veteran of the USGA who served as CEO and then CEO. He pushed for course configuration changes and tried new things like different heel heights and gave public courses, including Erin Hills in Wisconsin and Chambers Bay in Washington, a chance to host a US Open.

Davis was credited for trying out different approaches to championships, some more successful than others, but also for investing in some of the less public research projects the USGA funds. But Davis was also criticized for the way he organized the courses (too difficult) and the way the association regulated the team (not strict enough).

“Your number one job should be controlling the equipment,” said Alex Miceli, a longtime golf commentator, referring to the debate over how far a pro can hit a ball. “The USGA did a horrible job with that. It’s as if the Federal Reserve said, ‘Inflation will be temporary, inflation will be temporary, inflation will be temporary.’ Well, it isn’t.

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

“When I walked into a prep meeting, I told John, ‘I’m not needed here and I could be disruptive,’” Whan said. “The only guideline I’ve given is that once you have a plan or a strategy, don’t change it. Don’t let the scores or the media change it. Athletes don’t want that. I know this from being the commissioner of the LPGA.”

However, when Whan came on board after last year’s US Open, several top USGA executives left; the commercial director left Whan’s first day in charge and the brand director left about a month later.

So Whan did something no association executive has ever done: He brought in a title sponsor for one of the organization’s most high-profile championships. The US Women’s Open, dating back to 1946, is now the US Women’s Open presented by ProMedica. The partnership with the health care company nearly doubled the purse to $10 million. When Australian golfer Minjee Lee won the championship this month, she took home a record $1.8 million check for first place.

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

“On airplanes, they would ask me, ‘What does the USGA do?’” he said, pulling out a card with the word “USGA” written on the side. “I came up with Unify, Showcase, Govern and Advance.”

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

The big investment areas are strategies to reduce water use and develop young golfers in the same way other countries do.

While Whan said he had no desire to play with the US Open, he is also not about to neglect the tournament that generates 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 TV time on the weekends when I was a kid but has dramatically declined. “If we take it for granted, there’s no reason why we can’t end up like bowling.”

He repeated an oft-told story about Jason Gore, a former PGA Tour player who is the senior director of player relations at the USGA. Where the players win their US Open affairs, Gore told him.

While the men’s side is packed with severe tests for the next decade, including Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach and Merion, Whan has made an effort to have equally prestigious sites for the US Women’s Open, with Riviera, Merion, Pinehurst and Pebble . Beach on the list.

The protection of these sites has come with investments from the USGA. In Pinehurst, the association is building a second headquarters. At Pebble Beach, he’s building a permanent players’ pavilion, which the course can use for other events. From a long-term perspective, the organization has made capital improvements to a hosting site; in the past it has erected and dismantled structures.

These initiatives are intended to make it easier for the US Open, a huge logistics undertaking that blocks fields for months, to return year after year. But it is also for the sites to organize other events and work towards their goal of promoting other initiatives.

“I don’t need US Open partners,” Whan said. “I need partners to grow the game. We want to ensure that these cathedrals of golf accept the responsibility of hosting not only the biggest and most financially lucrative events.”

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