Storytelling

The Sports Commissioner You’ve Never Heard of

Golf is a sport demanding patience and composure, yet the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) has a commissioner with a caffeine addiction, yet he never drinks coffee. That insane man is Mike Whan.

When he’s not in the office, you can probably find Whan at either the car wash or the driving range, with a Coke Zero and a pack of gum close by, likely singing whatever tune was last on the Classic Rewind Sirius radio station. When he is in the office, he’ll still be singing, and the Coke and gum will be placed on his desk before he walks the halls, opening every office door and giving a high five to all the employees, and answering the phone at the front desk if he hears it.

Before joining the LPGA, Whan wrote a book. Instead of writing about business or his life, Whan is proud of making the most out of a bad situation, turning mandated traffic school into a completed bucket list item. The saying “patience is a virtue” does not apply to Whan when he’s behind the wheel, especially on highways, where he weaves between cars and avoids semi trucks like they are land mines.

Attending two eight hour classes to get out of paying a few speeding fines was quite the task for Whan, as his leg started bouncing 30 minutes into the first class and didn’t stop until he got to go home. The benefit of these classes, if there could be one, is that the second class was instructed by an officer with even less patience than Whan, and finished the class in six hours, only to be told neither he nor the people in the class could leave early. Whan took out his notepad from his briefcase and made bullet point summaries of the stories the officer told to pass the time. Two days later, one page of bullet notes had turned into the first chapter of Whan’s book, which has nothing to do with his business strategies, to put it candidly.

Yes, this really is the commissioner of the LPGA, and he’s also my dad.

*  * *

Whan began his job as the commissioner on January 4, 2010. Whan had previously worked for Wilson Sporting Goods, TaylorMade Golf, and a hockey equipment company called Mission-Itech, so the sports world was not new to him. He had an idea of what he was going to be doing for the LPGA, but I doubt that the LPGA knew exactly what he had in mind.

He wanted to create a new atmosphere in Daytona Beach, Florida, the location of the LPGA Headquarters. “There used to be assigned parking spots,” Whan told me. “I tore my sign out of the ground on the first day. If you’re on a team, everyone is treated equal, so why should I have a better parking spot than anybody else.” Flash forward to now and the LPGA has experienced great success under Whan. Keely Levins, an assistant editor at Golf Digest, wrote that since 2010, LPGA annual event numbers, total purse and TV coverage have all seen growth. When I referenced these stats, Whan snickered, “That’s how I get graded, that’s how I keep my job and keep my members happy.”

Whan greeting nearly 130,000 fans for a tournament in 2017

Whan knows his job is to provide the LPGA with that growth, but he did not accomplish any of those marks by being a typical businessman, just ask what’s left of his old parking spot sign.

* * *

It had been about a year between Whan’s last day with Mission-Itech and his first with the LPGA. That’s when he wrote his book. Night after night, as an 11 year old, I would walk upstairs to say goodnight, only to hear what could’ve been mistaken for my dad practicing monologues. He would pace back and forth in our home every day, microphone headset on as he dictated his book to his laptop. By literally talking his book into existence he immersed himself into the story, reading it as if he were each character. I guess he didn’t realize that the laptop only recognized the words, not capturing the emotion he had as he read off of his notepad, but it did make for a fun thing to watch from a distance. When he finished the book, Whan was ready to work again, but for the first time in a long time, he actually exercised some patience.

“I was not interested,” Whan admitted, talking about the prospect of being considered for the LPGA commissioner. “It was everything I said I didn’t want to do next. I didn’t want to move, travel, or do something that wasn’t what I had been doing.” Mike described what he had been doing in his CEO role with Mission-Itech as one where he was “travelling back and forth between Canada and California for 5 years.”

Whan reflected back on the past nine years of work with the LPGA and said, “I’m really a CEO of a business…, “ and commented on how he moved to Florida for the job and is traveling on over half of the weeks on a calendar. He didn’t want to move, didn’t want to travel, and wanted a job that was familiar to him.

One for three, could’ve been zero I guess.

* * *

Getting to learn the dirt on your dad is an opportunity I couldn’t miss, so I asked a few LPGA staff members what their commissioner does differently than a typical commissioner. Most of the answers were about how he’s a great leader, or makes people feel welcomed, and as cool as that is to hear, it’s not what I was interested in learning, nor is it as enjoyable to read about. 

I assumed my dad’s coworkers might’ve been sugarcoating, nervous that they were talking to their boss’s son and didn’t want to get themselves into trouble by poking fun at the guy in the corner office. That’s when I reached out to Candace Adkison, who is the manager of the commissioner’s office at the LPGA. Adkison has worked with Whan for a number of years and also knows me and my family personally, so she had no such reservations. “There is never a dull moment when Mike is in the office… He doesn’t take himself too seriously…” said Adkison. “(He) lets people see the dad or the husband or the friend side of him, not just the boss.”

She pointed out things that I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to see as well. “He travels with his own mattress topper to put on plane seats and hotel beds. He’ll always hit up a Chipotle or a Five Guys as soon as he gets back from his trips,” said Adkison. “Oh, and he brings more luggage than Mrs. Whan when she travels with him.” 

Adkison then offered to get coworkers honest takes on Whan herself. She talked with people who are close with Whan, and work directly with him frequently. Two of the people she talked with are Sean Pyun, the LPGA’s Chief Business Officer in Asia and Roberta Bowman, the Chief Brand & Communications Officer.

“Our meals will often take place at some of the world’s most exclusive and fancy restaurants, with menu items we can’t pronounce correctly,” said Pyun, referencing their time working together on the road. “Mike is that one guy who would still order a pizza and a Coke Zero.” I told you he was addicted to Coke Zero. As for the gum though, I was reminded of a story from Whan’s first year on the job when he was new to all the places he would travel.

Singapore is known for its cleanliness, something that aligns well with my dad, who spends about one weekend a month just to clean the garage. To Whan’s surprise, Singapore one ups him, prohibiting chewing gum in the country. The first time he traveled to Singapore, Whan had more than a few packs of gum on him, and remembers chewing gum right before meeting the country’s Prime Minister, without a drip of sweat on him, having no clue at all about the law and never being caught.

Doesn’t hurt to have a little luck on your side I guess.

* * *

Whan relates his job now to when he coached the Little League teams for both me and my brothers. 

EVERYONE at the LPGA has a nickname given by the “Commish”. 

He did the same thing for every player and coach on his Little League teams, such as the nickname “Deuce” for a player named John Adams, the same name as the second president.

“I am not great on names,” Whan confessed. Not only are nicknames easier for Whan to remember, but they are also widely enjoyed throughout the company, even if Whan, among others, don’t even know actual names. “The nicknames are fun.  They make us have a true team feel,” claimed Adkison. “There is no rhyme or reason to some of them… but he has even introduced people to title sponsors by their nickname.” Whan didn’t want to come to the LPGA to have coworkers, he wanted teammates. “He makes it ok to have fun,” said Bowman. “Sometimes he offers cash for participation in meetings, or for yelling an answer the loudest.” He’ll do this when he’s not even the one leading the meeting, trying to inspire a culture of cooperation.

Whan knows his words and actions carry weight, which is why he is often more of a risk taker when he is in the spotlight, like when he agrees to be the target in target practice.

Whan drove a golf car with a target on the side across a driving range for a charity event

* * *

Golf doesn’t have to be whispering and soft clapping according to the LPGA. In fact, Whan himself takes a bluetooth speaker with him when he plays his home course in central Florida, singing along yet again and screaming “BOOYAH!” after a nice shot. 

Making the sport appeal to more girls everywhere has been a big focus of the LPGA, and it’s where Whan’s creativity shines. “What I probably bring to the room more than anyone else is ideas,” Whan said. When it comes to getting attention towards women’s golf, the LPGA has used a good amount of the ideas coming from the guy who wore a kilt at a tournament in Scotland, not for a photoshoot, but because he wanted to.

There are around 100,000 first time female golfers between 7-14 years old every year. Whan helped one of them on her short game

Everything with Whan involved is an adventure. “A combination of the best coach you’ve had and that crazy uncle who makes the most routine outing an adventure,” said Bowman. Whan definitely has fun with everything he does, and the public gets to see a lot of the fun he has while he’s traveling to the different tournaments throughout the year, like wearing that kilt in Scotland, a cheesehead by the Packers homeland. Those who don’t travel in the company get to see his unique wardrobe choices too, as Whan is typically wearing the most crazy costume to the office holiday party each year.

Whan announcing a new tournament in Green Bay

* * *

All in all, the LPGA might not have the same following as the NFL or NBA, but Whan, his team, and the players provide an atmosphere that keeps LPGA fans just as excited as the city of New Orleans after drafting Zion. Whan was given an opportunity to help a game he loves grow, and he has done just that, while having more fun than any sports commissioner ever has. One of the slogans the LPGA has used during Whan’s time there was “see why it’s different out here.” I believe that one of the central ingredients to the LPGA’s difference from other sports and other companies is commissioner Whan.

* * *

*All photos courtesy of Mike Whan*

1 comment on “The Sports Commissioner You’ve Never Heard of

  1. lwd14

    I almost went to work with Mike at Itech, I admire what he has don for the LPGA. He tried many interesting things to help grow hockey in the U.S. and Canada. Nice to have known him.

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