New USGA CEO Mike Whan could usher in a new era for golf's most visible governing body

The former LPGA commissioner brings enthusiasm and a fresh perspective to the 126-year-old organization.
Michael Whan, recently named CEO of the USGA, addresses the media during the State of the LPGA talk during the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club on November 22, 2019 in Naples, Florida.

The USGA named Mike Whan its new CEO on Wednesday. As Whan winds down his decade-long tenure as the commissioner of the LPGA Tour, he will step into the role being vacated by Mike Davis, who served as the USGA's Executive Director beginning in 2011 before his title was changed to CEO in 2016.

There is a phenomenon in higher education where a university will alternate between having a president who is more of an academic and one who is more of a fundraiser. Mike Davis represented a more academic side of institutional golf, having ascended through the operations ranks as director of championship relations, U.S. Open director and senior director of Rules and Championships before acceding to the top role.

Davis presided over an evolution in U.S. Open setup philosophy during his tenure; he would mix in shortened tee locations on certain holes in order to throw competitors off-balance from one round to the next, rather than simply subjecting them to the all-out daily assault the championship had long been known for.

Whan's background, temperament and self-professed expertise level could not be more different. He is a cheerleader, a collaborator and a business-development savant rolled into one.

He also seems to know what he doesn't know. "I know I have a lot to learn," Whan said during his introductory press conference Wednesday, adding, self-effacingly, that he could envision many golf insiders saying, "'I don't know what expertise Mike Whan brings to the USGA'," and that he would not fault them for saying so.

Instead, Whan sees his usefulness in his ability to form coalitions and partnerships within the game, a skill that helped him and his colleagues grow the LPGA Tour's schedule from a 24-event slate totaling $41 million in prize money in 2010 to one comprising 34 events and $76 million in 2021.

"I'm really comfortable pulling the huddle together," he said of his aptitude for bringing disparate groups with differing agendas to the table and acknowledging the importance of "working both with and for" the USGA's long list of partners and associated groups, from rank-and-file golfers to equipment manufacturers and corporate sponsors.

Whan's experience as LPGA commish, plus a past stint with TaylorMade, also point toward deep ties to the golf equipment industry at a moment when the USGA is preparing to stiffen some of the regulations it places on golf equipment design.

Hearing Whan relay that he recently told Callaway Golf CEO Chip Brewer, "I look forward to working for you," might raise questions over his willingness to stand up to manufacturers on the distance issue, but he also said Wednesday in an interview on Golf Today that "whatever standards are set, whatever changes in standards come about, the next morning a thousand engineers will wake up and figure out how to push the envelope within those new standards." Whan may well be prepared to treat manufacturers' inevitable protestations about the stifling of R&D with a nod and a cheek-turn.

A background in brand marketing and a consistent focus on partnerships with the LPGA mean Whan will undoubtedly be the most pro-business top-dog the USGA has ever had. "I am very concerned about our [LPGA Tour] players and their schedule," he said in a 2017 interview for WomensGolf.com's Nancy Berkley, "[b]ut, I deliver for the check-writer who sponsors our tournaments."

That level of focus on the organization's partnerships should excite the likes of Rolex, Lexus and American Express, who are among the USGA's main sponsors. But it also may invite some skepticism from golfers who fear increased commercialization will begin to take precedence over what they see as the game's traditional values and virtues.

Nevertheless, the new perspective and style Whan figures to bring to the USGA should resonate with golfers who regard the organization as stodgy, often using the pejorative term "blue blazers" to refer to them and their traditional aesthetic of authority. Those who are familiar with Whan's more laid-back but football-coach-energetic style will not be surprised that during both his press conference and Golf Today appearance on Wednesday, he was clad in a business-casual button-down and smart pullover, seemingly more ready to sneak out for a bucket of range balls at the local public course than attend a cocktail reception at a country club.

Will Mike Whan change the USGA, or will the USGA change Mike Whan? Based on early observations, bet on the former. And after what he did for the LPGA Tour over a decade, the pressure's on to help usher in a new era of prosperity and consensus at a critical moment in the game's history. Everyone who loves golf should wish Whan success.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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New USGA CEO Mike Whan could usher in a new era for golf's most visible governing body