RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIFORNIA | It wasn’t quite a swansong. LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan will remain at the helm of the world’s oldest women’s sports league until a new commissioner comes on board – a process that Whan thinks could wrap up sometime near the end of May. But Wednesday was his last chance to talk to players and the media in person at Mission Hills. As usual, Whan covered a broad range of topics with the kind of refreshing honesty and openness that has made him one of the best leaders in all of sports.
Nothing, however, was more moving than the story he told near the end of his talk.
“It was November 2009 and I'm at the LPGA Tour Championship at the Houstonian,” Whan said. “I'm not commissioner yet. I'd been announced (as the new hire) but nobody knew who I was, which was great because I could walk around and nobody told me what was wrong with the tour. It was a really a great time to be a fan.
“But one night I had a drink with Louise Suggs. And she said, ‘Kid, keep it simple.’ Then she talked for about an hour and nothing she said was simple. She talked about all the aspects of the LPGA. At the end, I said to her, ‘Hey, Louise, when you say, “keep it simple,” what do you mean?’ And I have this little 5-by-7 notecard that I carried with me for years in my briefcase. It just said, ‘Keep it Simple’ on the top. Underneath it, I wrote what she said. She said, ‘Mike, it's just this simple: She pointed to a bunch of players in the lobby and said, ‘Give them a better place to play.’
“I knew what she meant. It wasn't courses or purses or TV, but a combination of all of them. She said, ‘Give them a better place to be.’
“Then she said, ‘Care about the future,’ which caught me off guard. As a brand-new commissioner in 2009 I'm like, ‘What do you mean?’
“She said, ‘We have a Tour today because we (the Founders) cared about the future. Make them care about the future.’
“Okay, how do I make them care about the future? I've got to create an event (the Founders Cup) where we talk about the future.
“Then she said, ‘Get the boys involved.’ I said, ‘What do you mean “get the boys involved?”’ She said, ‘You know, the boys. The guys that run all the boys’ stuff.’ She was talking about the PGA, USGA and R&A. She called them the boys. ‘Get the boys involved. They'll help.’
“If you think about it today, we have the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the U.S. Women's Open, LPGA*USGA Girls Golf; we have the European Tour involved with the LET, the PGA TOUR selling our TV rights. So, I really think the boys, as she called them, are involved.
“The last one, which was just for me, she said, ‘Be a good and honest man.’ I was thinking, I just met her. Does she know that I'm not a good and honest man? I remember saying, ‘What do you mean be a good and honest man?’ She said, ‘This job will test you. It will test you personally, test you ethically, and it's going to be hard on you. When you're facing a crisis, focus on your family first and think about (the players) as your extended family, but focus on your family first.’
I was like, ‘Louise, I'm a family guy. I'll be fine.’ But she said, ‘I'm just telling you you're going to wake up four or five years into this job, and somebody's going to suffer, and it's okay if it's us. It just can't be your family.’
“No one has ever said that to me before or after. I'm pretty proud of that. My family would probably not agree that they didn't suffer. But be a good and honest man (was an important message). Juli Inkster said something to me very similar, which is, ‘We can handle honesty. We just can't handle lack of honesty out here.’
“We've been in a lot of crises together, including 2020,” Whan said. “If you treat people honestly, they'll treat you honestly back. So, the message for the next commissioner is: Keep it simple. Give them a place to play. Make the future involved for them. Keep the boys involved. And when you're talking about your family, be pretty honest. At the time she said it, I didn't think any of it was powerful, but I was smart enough to write it down.
“I think that's a good way for me to exit.”
Whan talked about other things – schedules, sponsors, the Olympics and the relationship he expects the LPGA Tour to have with the USGA once he assumes the top job in Far Hills, N.J. But nothing was more important or impressive than the story of his cocktail conversation with Louise Suggs. It encapsulated Whan’s commissionership and the culture he created in his 11-plus years at the LPGA.
Character matters. Culture matters. Leadership matters. Suggs knew it. And whether she sensed it at the time or not, she found the perfect person to put her message into practice.
Whan is as dynamic a leader as exists in sports. But far more important, he is a good and honest man. In the end, that’s all that really matters.