Mike Whan, the USGA’s new top dog, talks about his plans (listen), his goals (learn the Rules), and his time leading the LPGA (it grew every year)
How are you and your family feeling about the move to New Jersey?
I’m really excited to live on Hamilton Farm—a course where we played an LPGA event for a lot of years—only five minutes from the office.
Where do you think you’ll have the steepest learning curve?
Rules. I’ve been around the game my whole life, but when I was the LPGA Commissioner and walked into the TV booth, I’d say, “No rules questions while I’m in here.” It’ll be the highest learning curve but the one quite frankly I’m excited about, because I’ve just never taken the time.
Where do you feel most confident?
Championships and athletes, amateur or pro. I’ve spent the last 12 years around athletes of all levels. If you’re good enough to make it to a U.S. Open or U.S. Amateur, whether you play well or not, that ought to be an experience that feels worthy to what it took to get there. I’m excited about making sure that is and continues to be for years to come.
What aspect of your time at the LPGA do you hope to bring to the USGA?
Team. The good news is I’m going to be surrounded by talent that is better at what they do than I am, and I’m going to be comfortable with that. I believe in creating a team and family culture, and there’s a unique and proud culture at the USGA. The best parts of my life have been leading peers and this is another great challenge—the number one reason I took the job.
What are your first-year goals?
I’m going to walk into the USGA the same way I walked into the LPGA—full of ideas that I was completely convinced were right. Those points of view will be very different and much clearer after 100 days. Check in with me then and I’ll be boisterous about the direction; in the meantime, I’ll look confident but be using an eraser a lot.
What will it take for your successor at the LPGA to be successful?
Three things. Trust the athletes and the members of the staff; it’s an impressive team. Listen for the first year more than you talk. Then, as Louise Suggs said to me, “When it’s all over make sure you were yourself.” I hope my successor doesn’t try to be some version of me. As long as they walk in, look at the status quo, and are unsatisfied with it, they’re going to be just fine.
What has been the biggest obstacle to the popularity of the LPGA?
It’s hard to identify one. I’ve always struggled with, “You just don’t deliver the viewership of the others.” Well, they’re paid to be on network TV 35 weeks a year; we write a check six times a year to be on network TV. If you asked me to run a 100-yard dash but I have to start 170 yards back, I don’t expect to win many races. We’ve closed the gap—virtually 12 years of viewership increases in the U.S. and around the world—but we’ve still never been given an equal playing field. It’s hard to engage with athletes you don’t see very much.
What can the industry do to be more effective in growing the game?
Keep showcasing the best athletes from all over the world—if you think Ariya Jutanugarn’s U.S. Women’s Open victory didn’t matter, you’re not from Thailand where it changed the stereotype of the sport overnight. And let’s get over ourselves in how we define golf: Topgolf is golf; Putt-Putt is golf; hitting balls on a range is golf. You’re not a golfer by how and where you swing a club, just that you do swing a club.