Mike Whan became commissioner of the LPGA Tour in January 2010, three months after the International Olympic Committee announced the return of golf to the Olympics, starting with Rio in 2016. Whan’s new responsibilities included attending quarterly meetings of the Olympic Board of Directors to discuss how golf would fit into the Games, along with golf’s power brokers: PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, Deputy Commissioner Jay Monahan, USGA CEO Mike Davis , European Tour CEO Keith Pelley and R&A boss Martin Slumbers.
When he first attended the meeting, Whan was skeptical of the value of golf in the Olympics and at some point shared his concerns with Finchem. “I said, ‘Tim, was that really necessary?’ “Whan explained. “I have to rearrange my schedule every four years. There are a lot of great championships in golf that other sports don’t have. ‘
“Tim said to me, ‘Mike, I struggled with this in the beginning. But I think you will find the impact this is having around the world will be more than worth it. ‘ ”
Finchem’s foresight proved astute, and Whan, who now heads the USGA, has become an Olympic zealot, especially when it comes to women’s football. On the eve of the second modern women’s Olympic golf tournament, the inclusion of golf in the Summer Games was an essential part of the LPGA’s expansive growth in the eleven years since it was announced.
The tangible by-product of golf’s full medal status at the Olympics is investment by countries in golf infrastructure, whether or not their athletes receive a medal. Governments use financial resources to develop programs that support the development of players at a young age and provide opportunities to practice the sport to identify emerging talent.
India’s Aditi Ashok almost single-handedly inspired her country during the 2016 Olympics. After shooting 68 in a row to take the lead four times, the then 18-year-old shared her ambitions for the game in her home country. “Getting golf into an Olympic sport will definitely help,” said Ashok. “We will hopefully have more golf courses and children taking up the sport.”
That hope paid off almost immediately when more than 20 million people from India searched Google for golf clubs that evening. Ashok returns to Tokyo with another chance for inspiration after being nearly the first Indian to win the LPGA at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in July, finishing T-3 alongside Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn.
Anannarukarn took her first career win at the ISPS Handa World Invitational last week, becoming the fifth player from Thailand to win in LPGA history. The LPGA started in 2006 with the Honda LPGA Thailand. Whan views Thailand’s progression of the game as a notable example of the success golf has seen since becoming a “podium sport”.
“[The LPGA] went from games in Thailand and in general never to see women playing in Thailand, “explained Whan,” to TV shows in Thailand, to women on the tour from Thailand to Ariya Jutanguarn [and Patty Tavatanakit] Winning majors and becoming the world’s top players from Thailand. ”Thailand’s growth is brightest in 2021 as the country with the second-most wins by a nation at the LPGA that year (four), behind the United States (six).
Reaching the podium can inspire another level of greatness. Inbee Park’s gold medal was the second most watched women’s golf show in South Korean history, behind Se Ri Pak’s groundbreaking title at the 1998 US Women’s Open. When Park won the gold, 23.9 percent of households saw it. It helped change the culture of the game in South Korea.
“It just got a lot more people playing golf,” said Park. “When they were usually older, 50 years for South Korea, but now it’s everyone’s sport. Because of the Olympics, a lot of people took up golf and they really enjoyed playing golf. The variety of golfers is unbelievable. “
Lydia Ko’s silver medal contributed to her receiving the New Zealand Order of Merit, one of the highest civilian awards in the country, in late 2018. In addition to her scholarship, Ko is focused on expanding the game in her home country. “If I can inspire another junior to start playing the game and become the next LPGA or PGA player, I think that’s a good job of mine,” said Ko.
Shanshan Feng’s bronze medal at the Olympic Games 16 coincided with significant growth in junior golf in China as the nation grew from 400 juniors in 2013 to 34,572 in 2017.
The LPGA benefits from having most of the Olympians playing on their tour or on their developing Symetra tour. More than 50 countries are represented today by the two tours of the LPGA. “The nice thing about the LPGA is that [fans of women’s golf in the Olympics] tune in for the next week and see all the same athletes competing 30 times a year, ”said Heather Daly-Donofrio, LPGA’s Chief Tour Operations Officer.
Investing in the game and having better ways for players to get out of countries around the world is one of the most powerful trickle-down benefits the LPGA receives. Whenever a player from a new nation makes it to the LPGA, the tour gets a lucrative call. “From a purely selfish perspective,” Whan said, “this country generally tries to buy our television rights every time an athlete from their country comes to the LPGA. These TV rights are generally what keeps the LPGA going. “
Since 2010, the LPGA has grown from broadcasting in 20 countries to more than 175 countries. “It wasn’t just the Olympics, but the Olympics must have put some wind in the sails,” said Whan.
Another unforeseen benefit from the Olympics was the LPGA’s new North American TV deal, slated to begin in 2022. The relationship Monahan and Whan built from their quarterly meetings while working on the Olympics was one of the reasons the PGA Tour and LPGA negotiated their new TV deals together. As a result, now that the LPGA is playing during its broadcasts, the PGA Tour is promoting an expensive and important slot to advertise to the PGA audience.
“If I was honest, some of our international TV deals were pretty lucrative, but we didn’t have a great US TV deal,” said Whan. “Jay helped us get one that was far more attractive in terms of what it could mean in terms of coverage, but what it could mean financially for the company.”
Other partnerships were formed at these Olympic meetings. The LPGA and LET formed a strategic alliance in 2019 that included Pelley and Slumbers who joined the LET board. Daly-Donofrio said she was able to use communication lines from the Olympic meetings to share best practices in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I can’t tell you how many times a week I’ll be contacting someone from the PGA of America or the European Tour or the PGA Tour,” said Daly-Donofrio.
While women’s golf tees off at Kasumigaseki Country Club and golf is on the schedule in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028, the LPGA will continue to benefit from the power of the Olympics.
“Golf is better aligned because of the glue that the Olympic movement was,” Whan said.