In my “Notes from Nancy” in the November monthly Women’s Golf Newsletter – I referred to the LPGA’s 2016 season as “Beyond Expectations.”  But then LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan announced the schedule for 2017. And, the 2017 season is even bigger and better!

Mike Whan LPGA 2017 womens golf
LPGA Tour Commissioner, Mike Whan

Commissioner Whan, who took the top spot in 2010, will be entering his eighth year as Commissioner.  He keeps fine-tuning and sharpening his strategic mission. It’s based on increasing the number of tournaments, the amount of the prize money, the number of countries hosting tournaments AND the number of countries that LPGA Tour players represent. All four components are very measurable and are necessary to make the LPGA Tour more marketable to more sponsors and in turn more visible to a global audience.

Next season, the LPGA Tour will add an additional tournament taking the total number to 35 – ten more events than it had five seasons ago. The number of tournaments with a purse of $2 million will also increase. The total amount of prize money in 2017 will be $67 million compared to $41 million in 2011.  (It’s said that the Commissioner’s goal is $100 million in prize money.  I’m betting he gets there!). View the 2017 LPGA Tournament Schedule.

However, the Commissioner is not directly focused on growing the number of recreational and non-professional women golfers – the many millions of us around the globe who love golf for the joy it brings us – not the trophies or prize money.  The Commissioner believes that growth overall for women golfers will be an outcome of his LPGA Tour strategy because “fans” of women’s golf are more likely to want to learn and play the game.  He may be right.

Thai LPGA player Pornanong Phatlum
Thai LPGA player Pornanong Phatlum

There is a parallel between the success of the LPGA Tour over the last few years and the growth of women golfers in the U.S. Recent statistics from the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Florida, for example, show that the segments of U.S. golfers with the greatest percentage growth in 2015 over the previous year were women golfers age 18 or over and girls ages 6-17.  Adult male golfers and junior boys did not have the same percentage increases. (see www.nancyberkley.com for a chart of adult and junior female and male golfers in the U.S. from 1998 to 2015.)

Commissioner Mike Whan’s LPGA 2017 Strategy:  Globalness and Youthfulness

In a TV interview during the final tournament of the season – the CME Globe Tour Championship November 14-20, 2016 in Naples, Florida, Commissioner Whan identified two themes of the LPGA that he said accounted for its continued growth. They were: Globalness and Youthfulness.

In the way of background, the marketing concept of “brand globalness” is based on the marketing theory that consumers will place more value on a “global” brand than a “local” brand.  Looking at the world of sports – Soccer’s World Cup is a good example of the strength of a borderless brand, the Wimbledon Tennis tournament is another and the Augusta National Golf tournament is a close cousin.  It’s important to remember that the Commissioner’s background was in marketing.

But there was criticism of the LPGA’s global strategy in the early years of his tenure. In my opinion, the criticism was related to the fact that the LPGA was founded in the United States. Thirteen women golfers – the Founders – traveled all over the U.S. to finally establish golf as a women’s professional sport in 1950. Modern golf was viewed as a U.S. sport. And it is the reason that the Founders Cup (now the Bank of Hope Founders Cup – March 16-19, 2017) honors those 13 women.

The second issue that challenged LPGA globalism was the fact that for several years Korean golfers frequently dominated the scene.  But that has changed.  Next season, LPGA Tour players will have been born in Thailand, China, New Zealand, Australia, Europe, Great Britain, Canada, the United States and maybe even India – just to name a few.

Spain's Carlota Ciganda. winner of two tournaments on the LPGA tour 2016
Spain’s Carlota Ciganda. winner of two tournaments on the LPGA tour in 2016

To emphasize the diversity and “globalness” of the LPGA, Whan pointed out that in the 2016 season, the winners of the five LPGA “majors” were from five different countries and that the top players on the Rolex World Rankings were also from five different countries.  In the 2016 International Crown tournament, eight countries competed (with four of their country’s top golfers) and the winning country was the United States.  No surprise that Commissioner Whan referred to the 2016 season as a “Global Celebration of Women’s Golf.”

But, the Commissioner knows his base!  Six years ago, only one-third of the LPGA Tournaments were in North America (U.S. and Canada).  This coming season, almost one-half of the Tour stops will be in North America.

Charley Hull womens golf LPGA
LPGA winner, Charley Hull

The other theme that the Commissioner emphasized in his interview was the “youthfulness” of the LPGA Tour. The CME Group Tour Championship was won by 20-year old Charley Hull from England. One look at the World Rolex Rankings for women golfers, and it’s clear that the top female professional golfers are getting younger and younger.  Whan brought the point home with a humorous aside saying that when the age of New Zealand’s Lydia Ko and Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn are added together, the total is still twelve years younger than his age.  (Hmmm… So how old is the Commissioner?)

Mike Whan’s Thoughts on LPGA 2017

I had the opportunity to ask the Commissioner a few questions. I was curious about what particular accomplishments he was proudest of this past season. His first answer was the increase in the hours of TV coverage that the LPGA received. Those were goals that he had referred to in our previous interviews and clearly he was proud to have moved the needle forward on TV coverage.

But he again referenced the “youthfulness” of the Tour – how young the players were.  But he also linked it to the success of the LPGA/USGA Girls Golf Program. He replied that it was uplifting to see how the increased exposure of the Tour has had such a tremendous impact on attracting more young girls to golf.  Adding:

“Since 2011, we’ve gone from reaching 5,000 girls each year through the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program to over 60,000 in 2016. And girls under the age of 18 are the fastest growing age-group in the game.”

What about your next challenges? I asked. His answer was about the two new tournaments in the U.S. this season at the core of the “Bigger and Better” season. The first will be Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic July 6-9 in Green Bay, Wisconsin (football country) at the golf course of the famous Green Bay Packers pro-football team.

In the LPGA’s announcement that the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin had agreed to sponsor the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic, the Commissioner noted that it will feature a full field of 144 players who will compete for a $2 million purse, tied for the largest domestic non-major purse on the LPGA Tour.

2nd Hole, Thornberry Creek at Oneida. Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic
2nd Hole, Thornberry Creek at Oneida. Site of the 2017 Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic
Morgan Pressel's tweet about the announcement of the LPGA Indy Women in Tech Championship
LPGA player, Morgan Pressel tweets about the announcement of the Indy Women in Tech Championship

The second new event will be the Indy Women in Tech Tournament September 7-10 in Indianapolis, Indiana at the famous 100-year old racetrack – home of the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 500.  The car races are often in the news but I must admit I never knew that four holes of a Pete Dye-designed golf course were inside that track. The remaining 14 holes of the historic Brickyard Crossing Golf Course are outside of the track.

The title sponsor of the Indy Women in Tech Tournament is the Guggenheim Life and Annuity Company, located conveniently in Indianapolis and a new sponsor for the LPGA.

And in 2017 the LPGA will also launch two new events outside North America. The Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies Scottish Open – the Aberdeen Classic – will be held July 27-30 in Scotland. It will be jointly sponsored with the Ladies European Tour (LET).

The Aberdeen Classic joins the Evian Championship in France also co-sponsored by the LPGA and the LET. The Commissioner explained that these events will continue to build on our home base in the United States and our global fan following. In my opinion, it may also be a step towards greater global partnership among the women’s golf tours.

The second new event outside the U.S. is in Auckland, New Zealand on September 28 – October 1, the McKayson New Zealand Women’s Open.  As Whan explained in a press conference (transcript), “McKayson, a company from Korea [was] taking us to Auckland, just like Lydia from Korea [was] taking us to Auckland.”  The new tournament will be played at the Windross Farms Golf Club in Auckland.  The Commissioner went on to say, “I’m hoping we can leave the same kind of mark in New Zealand that we have left in some other countries with a whole ‘nother generation of young golfers watching players like Lydia and saying I want to be her someday.”

New Zealand Womens Open LPGA tour 2017
Mackayson’s Chairman Kim, Lydia Ko, and Mike Whan announce that the New Zealand Women’s Open will be part of the 2017 LPGA Tour.

In a post CME Group Tour Championship press conference (transcript), the Commissioner mentioned that the LET and LPGA have been working on this co-sanctioned event for about a year.  A major concern was making sure there were about the same number of LPGA and LET players in the field. As Whan explained:  “We didn’t want to make this an LPGA event with some LET players or an LET event with some LPGA Players. If we were going to make this a co-opportunity, let’s make it a co-opportunity.

And for the first time (that I can recall), one of the official LPGA Tours in 2017 will use a “match play” format.  The Lorena Ochoa tournament in Mexico not only moved from the end of the season to May 4 – May 7.  And instead of the standard medal play format (total number of shots over four rounds), the Lorena Ochoa tournament will use the match play format. It will be interesting to watch because two months later, Team USA and Team Europe compete in match play in the exciting Solheim Cup, which will be held in Des Moines, Iowa August 14-20.

And then the Commissioner launched into a discussion of a fifth strategic goal that we had not talked much about.  And that is attracting the “casual fan.”  That topic is near and dear to me because I have consistently advocated that one of the best ways to grow the number of women golfers has always been to convert “fans” to “players.”

LPGA player, Anna Nordqvist and Mike Whan
LPGA player, Anna Nordqvist

Here’s how the Commissioner explained it:  “I think a big challenge for us is to do a much better job of attracting casual fans to the LPGA. The increases we’ve seen in televised coverage and appearances on network TV has allowed us to get the game in front of a lot of people who may not have ever seen the best female players on the planet perform. With the help of strategic partnerships with the likes of the PGA Tour, PGA of America and USGA we hope to take our big moments and make them even bigger in 2017 and beyond, and ultimately get more people invested in the LPGA.”

Reread that last paragraph.  Yes, it sounds like there may be some tournaments in the works in which both LPGA Tour and PGA Tour players compete together and against each other.  With a new PGA Tour Commissioner, Jay Monahan, just starting his first year in 2017 and the first female President of the PGA of America, Suzy Whaley, a few years away and the Chief Executive Officer of the PGA America, Pete Bevacqua, as part of the team, I predict that golf in 2017 has a bigger and better future than ever.  So stay tuned.  Watch more golf and play more golf!


 

Nancy Berkley
Nancy Berkley

Nancy Berkley is an expert on women’s golf and junior-girls golf in the U.S. A special interest of hers is encouraging business women to enjoy golf with colleagues and clients. Nancy is a member of the World Golf Foundation Women’s Committee and a member of the National Golf Foundation. Nancy is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University, Rutgers Law School and has a degree from the Professional Management Program of Harvard Business School.

Describing herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential, Nancy shares news about women’s golf – along with her opinions on berkleygolfconsulting.com and nancyberkley.com. You can also follow Nancy on Facebook and Twitter.

See all of Nancy’s WomensGolf.com articles.

Feature Image: Aberdeen Asset Management Ladies Scottish Open. Part of the 2017 LPGA Tour.