LPGA Tour's new international focus opens up a world of possibilities

LPGA Tour's new international focus opens up a world of possibilities
LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan speaks during a ceremony in September to announce Des Moines Golf and Country Club as the site for the 2017 Solheim Cup. Whan has taken an active role in transforming the LPGA into an international showcase for players and corporate sponsors. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Michael Whan remembers the first question he was asked by the media after taking over as LPGA commissioner in January 2010: What was he going to do about the overwhelming international influence on the tour?

"I want to pour more gas on the fire," he replied.


At the time, this was not well-received.

The LPGA was reeling from the economic downturn and the tour was struggling to find sponsors, and had shrunk its schedule from 37 events in 2008 to 28 in 2009.

On top of that, American players were overshadowed by rising international stars on a tour that played the majority of its events in the U.S.

But where others saw trouble, Whan saw an opportunity to spread the game across borders to attract new sponsors.

In his four years as commissioner, Whan has boosted the number of LPGA Tour events from 24 in 2010 to 33 this season, while tournaments overseas have jumped from 11 to 15 in that period. And the eight LPGA tournaments scheduled in Asia this season are the most in its history.

The tour's international sponsors now include Kia, the South Korean auto maker; Sime Darby, a multinational conglomerate in Malaysia; Lotte, a Japanese-South Korean conglomerate; and Swinging Skirts, a nonprofit in Taiwan. Next month, Swinging Skirts will host its first event outside of Taiwan when it sponsors the LPGA tour stop in San Francisco.

Whan is confident that his strategy has worked.

"Golf is global now," he said in a recent interview. "Great young golfers are growing up in every corner of the world so now they're generating interest in every corner of the world."

Whan, 49, started his career at Procter & Gamble, before becoming an executive with Wilson Sporting Goods and then TaylorMade Golf, prior to taking over the LPGA. He got the job after the previous commissioner, Carolyn Bivens, resigned in 2009 following a wave of criticism from players unhappy with the tour's economic problems and her leadership.

As Whan pushed the LPGA into more tournament stops overseas, the tour's best players increasingly came from foreign countries.

Today, seven of the top 10 women golfers in the world rankings are foreigners, including Inbee Park from South Korea, the No. 1 player in the world for 50 weeks, and Lydia Ko, a New Zealander who at 15 became the youngest player ever to win an LPGA tournament in August 2013.

"The game of golf is growing in Asia," said Karrie Webb, a veteran from Australia who won her 41st LPGA Tour tournament title Sunday in Phoenix. "We have more of an international-based tour now and opportunities you can't turn down."

Those opportunities include sponsors who want to reach an audience in the Asian market.

"If you're a Korean company that wants exposure in Taiwan, why not sponsor an LPGA event there?" said Paige MacKenzie, a seven-year tour veteran who does commentary for the Golf Channel.


London-based bank HSBC followed that logic when it shifted sponsorship of an LPGA tournament from the New York area to an event in Singapore, to help boost its presence in Asia.

Not surprisingly, LPGA Tour events now jump across the continents.

The tour started its season in the Bahamas in January, before going to Australia, then for a small Asian swing with stops in Thailand and Singapore. The tour returns to the U.S , almost uninterrupted, from March to September, before resuming its schedule overseas with a longer Asian tour, including events in Malaysia, China and South Korea.

Whan believes that by accommodating the needs of its sponsors, the LPGA is building strong relationships with firms that will continue to bankroll events across the world.

MacKenzie said most of the tour's players have embraced Whan's plan to grow the sport internationally. "I love the fact that LPGA travels worldwide and we play in front of fans that love and embrace the game of golf," she said. "Prior to him coming in we were fighting a dynamic . . . of whether LPGA is a U.S.-based domestic tour or a U.S.-based international tour.

"Players have bought into it and have changed the culture."

Despite the tour's growing popularity overseas, Whan said he doesn't want to lose the LPGA's home base and is committed to keeping the majority of events in the U.S.

This week the tour shifts to Carlsbad for the Kia Classic, Thursday through Sunday, with Spaniard Beatriz Recari looking to defend her title.

And next week is the first LPGA major of the season, the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage from April 3-6.

"This is the direction of golf," MacKenzie said. "As an American player I get questioned about the international component of the LPGA. But the LPGA is stronger now than it was 20 years ago when it was [more] domestic-based. You can't ignore that."

Twitter: @James_Barragan