LINKS PLAYERS MAGAZINE, 2016 ANNUAL EDITION

THE PURPOSE I COULDN’T PLAN

LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan tells his story of unintentional preparation

Officially, I wasn’t old enough to play Pop Warner football, but I guess I begged my dad enough that he knew I was serious. He went to the coach to see what they could do. They let him sign me up, as a scrawny eight-year-old who would be playing with boys as old as 12.

We practiced for a week and I did everything I could to get the coach’s attention. My dad showed up to take me home that first Friday evening, and he said to the coach, “So Coach, what do you think of my son?”

The coach was matter-of-fact. “Well, Mr. Whan, I gotta tell ya, he’s too small to be on the line and he’s not fast enough to be a receiver. I don’t think he’s bulky enough at his age to be a running back and take that kind of beating.”

“Hmm,” my dad allowed. “Should we come back next year?”

But the coach had something else in mind. “You know, he’s an incredibly quick study of the offense and he’s confident in the huddle. We’re going to try him at quarterback and see how that works out.”

My dad and I always had a deal where we would talk about three things at night before I went to bed. That night I just started crying. “Coach doesn’t like me, and he doesn’t think I can make it. I can’t be anything on this team.”

Looking me in my teared-over eyes, my dad said, “I don’t think you understood the coach. What he’s saying is they need somebody who’s smart enough and quick enough on their feet to figure out how to get the ball into the most talented athletes’ hands as soon as possible. That athlete doesn’t have to be you, but somebody has to be the one to make sure to get it from A to B and put the play in.”

I don’t remember a lot from when I was young, but I remember my dad saying, “If you can figure out that lesson in life, you’re going to be successful in a lot more than just football.”

Sure thing, I’ve remembered that lesson. And in many ways, I’m still that eight-year-old quarterback.

In 2008, I had just ended a seven-year stint as the president and CEO of Mission Hockey. It had been my privilege to work with two NHL owners in building a business with international reach and a strong level of confidence among NHL players themselves. But when we completed the sale of Mission and I returned home to Orange County, California, my wife gave me that look all spouses have when they realize their spouse is suddenly unemployed. “Now what?” she asked.

To me golf was always a strangely religious experience. When we were walking down a fairway, we said things to each other that we didn’t say anywhere else.I would never recommend my answer to her question, because when a guy makes promises to his wife that can be the beginning of the end. But promise her, I did. In fact, I made three promises. I told her I wasn’t going to do anything for a year, so that I could reconnect with her and our three boys. I told her I wouldn’t make her move from Southern California, which she really loved. And I told her I wouldn’t travel like I had with the hockey job.
I was actually doing very well with these promises for about six months. That’s when the recruiter called. He was the same guy who had placed me with Mission Hockey and now he had something bigger on his mind.

“I’ve got the next job for you,” he began. “It’s the commissioner of the LPGA.”

I was blunt. “That’s not the next job for me.”

But he did his own job well, and he started to tell me his reasons why this would be a good fit. I cut him off. “Look, it sounds like a great job, but I’m not moving to Florida and I’m not flying all over the world. It’s not for me and not now.”

So I gave him the names of some others who I thought would be good for the job and we hung up. I figured that was the last I’d hear of it.

A couple months down the line, though, one of my recommendations called me after going through the whole process but not getting the offer. “Mike,” he told me, “I know I was in the mix because you gave them my name, but in the end when they described why they weren’t going to hire me, they essentially described you. I can’t understand why you wouldn’t put your hat in the ring. It may not come at the right time, it may not be a perfect fit in your life, but you’d be good at this job, I think you’d be good for golf, and I think there’s a need you can fill.”

Without knowing it, he had used the magic word. I have always liked the idea of going where there is a need.

Still, I’d made those promises.

I had every intention of sticking to what I had told Meg I would do. But I’ve always been a hyper, Type A personality, and it’s hard to keep a guy like me from seizing the controls. It takes a really loud knock from God to get my attention, and I’ve maybe only answered three or four times—which isn’t something I’m proud of. When our second son was born, though, I had to learn to do things differently.

We weren’t sure what was going on with this little guy of ours, but there were fears of autism and other disabilities. We traveled around the world, tapping into the expertise of specialists, trying to figure it all out. That’s how I did things. Take control. Make things happen. I was a 29-year-old kid, really, and I thought I could work it all out. The idea of letting go was just contrary to my beliefs.

In the midst of all that, Meg was saying to me over and over again, “Just put it in God’s hands and trust him.” Now to me, that was code for Let’s not do anything. I hated that code, and I fought it forever.

I didn’t go to church very often in those days, but I found myself there one day, saying a prayer I had never imagined praying. It sounded like this: “I’ve got no answers and I hope you have some, because right now I’m sitting in the back seat of the car and usually I’m doing the driving.”

It was the most uncomfortable prayer, and yet it brought me a joy that I had never known. I always thought letting go would mean more stress, more pain. I found out the opposite was true. Giving God control relieved my stress.

Having grown up Catholic, with all the guilt that comes with it, I still wasn’t a church guy. But God was finding me. When I went to work with Mission Hockey, one of the owners of our company was Bob Naegele, who also owned the Minnesota Wild. Bob was just about as open a Christian man as I had ever met. When we first sat down to a meal together in a restaurant, he reached across the table, took my hands, and said, “Let’s just hold hands and pray for a second.”
I thought, I haven’t held hands and prayed before dinner since I was 12. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it now!

But the conversation was fantastic, and at the end of the evening, he came around the table and hugged me. Then he said in my ear, “I think we were brought together for a reason. I need you. And if you’re willing to follow this path, I think we can both learn a lot.”

Bob was 60 and I was 30, and I don’t think I’d hugged a guy since my dad at my wedding. When I came home, Meg took one look at me and said, “What’s wrong?”
I said, “I think actually nothing’s wrong. I think I met the next knock at the door.”

Bob ended up being a mentor and an encouragement to me, and he was probably one of the reasons we went hunting for a church in Orange County. We piled all the boys in the car one Sunday and drove to a church we had heard a lot about, but when we got there, we were an hour and a half early. I said, “I’m not waiting around. Let’s go to that really big church I drive by every day on the way to work.”

That church was Saddleback Church. Maybe you’ve heard of it. A man named Rick Warren is the pastor there and he wrote a book that has helped a lot of people understand what it means to walk with Jesus.

Meg was saying to me over and over again, “Just put it in God’s hands and trust him.” Now to me, that was code for Let’s not do anything. I hated that code, and I fought it forever.Pastor Rick walked out that morning and started talking about the purpose-driven life and about being a purpose-driven church, and for me it was like I heard orchestra music. That was the first time anybody on a stage in a church said something to me that was so profound. I went and bought the book, and before I knew it people in airports were talking to me about the book and we were sharing these experiences of how God had given us a purpose, not for our sakes, but for his.

And so you can understand my dilemma. I had told Meg that I was doing some things for her and the boys—that we weren’t moving, that I wasn’t traveling—and yet this job that seemed to be a perfect fit was coming my way.

To be completely honest, the job of LPGA commissioner was probably more than “perfect.” It was closer to a dream job for me.

Football remained my primary sport into college, yet the golf course was always a meaningful place. We never sat around the dinner table in the Whan family and talked about family or health or visions or goals. It just never happened there. It always happened on the golf course.

My father told me about the birds and the bees on the golf course. I learned about the illness of a family member on the golf course. My mom and dad talked about their health and goals for their estate on the golf course. To me it was always a strangely religious experience. When we were walking down a fairway, we said things to each other that we didn’t say anywhere else. I don’t know why that was. I hope it’s not the case for me and my kids, but maybe it still is. That would make sense, because when I was 15 or 16, the golf course was where I could have a conversation with a 40-year-old executive and it didn’t seem out of place. I couldn’t have done that in a mall or a restaurant. There wasn’t a connection or a comfort there, so that would have been intimidating for me. But a golf course was a place where things came easily and learning happened.

I spent a lot of time working at golf courses, too. I caddied first, then cut greens and changed cups. It was a way I made money right up until I graduated from college. Often the game provided a sanctuary for me.

So now here I was all these years later considering a job at the upper echelons of the game. It’s amazing how God prepares you for things. My dad had taught me that my best work would come when I set others up to do their best work. My son had taught me that compassion, not control, is what a lot of people really need. And Bob Naegele had taught me that God brings people together for his purposes. All of these were things I would come to apply with the LPGA. But I still had one more lesson to learn.

At the encouragement of those who seem to know me better than I know myself, I went ahead and entered the running for the job of LPGA commissioner. I was maybe a year late to the game, at least from the perspective of a Type A achiever. But the position was still vacant and I went through the process.

In the end, however, I thought I had only one choice: turn down the job. Remember, there were those promises. I typed a long email to the board. Its gist amounted to this: “This is a wonderful opportunity, but I’m not sure it could say on my epitaph, ‘Here lies a great commissioner and a great father.’ My kids are in school and they need me. If you’re looking for a commissioner in 10 years, I’m probably your guy. But if I took the job now, I wouldn’t be able to hold back. I’d probably succeed as commissioner and fail as a father and that’s too tough to swallow. Rather than put myself in that situation, I’m going to step out.”

The chairman of the board called me. She understood, she said. She liked my priorities. But she wondered if I would talk to one more person. I said, “Sure.”
Charlie Mechem called me the next day. Charlie had been the commissioner of the LPGA in the mid-’90s and may I just say, with the love of one who has relied on Charlie nearly every day for the past six years, that he is one smooth operator. Honestly, he set me up.

“Mike,” he started, and then he showed that he had done his usual homework, “I read an article one time where you were quoted as saying, ‘The most important thing I want to teach my kids is how to have the passion and the guts to follow their dream.’”

We’re not just interesting to golf fans; we’re really a movement that can be important to moms and dads of daughters.“That’s a hundred percent right, Charlie. I just want my kids to have the guts and the passion to do what they love to do, no matter what that is. I don’t want anyone to talk them out of it.”

Then it was his turn again. “Let me tell you something, my boy, about kids.”

And I said, “All right.”

“Until they’re about 13, they listen to everything you say. Whatever comes out of your mouth, they believe.”

“Are you about to tell me about teenagers now?” I asked. I wasn’t sure where he was headed.

“Here’s what people don’t understand,” he continued. “When kids become teenagers, they don’t stop listening. They just stop listening to what you’re saying. At that point they follow what you do.”

I still didn’t get it. “That’s great fatherly counsel,” I said, “but what does this have to do with being commissioner of the LPGA?”

“You said in your email that this would be a dream job and a passion you’ve had since you were a kid. Well, if you want your kids to have the guts and the ability to follow their dreams, you’re going to have to show them and not tell them. If this is your dream and something you’re passionate about and you simply decide not to because it’s more logical to say no, trust me when I say your three boys are hearing that, even though it might come out of your mouth different. They’re hearing it’s great to have a dream but only pursue it if it makes all the sense and the timing’s perfect. As you know, that never is the case. It’s up to you, but if you want your kids to have the guts to pursue their dreams, you’d better lead by example.”

It was hardly a fair fight. Charlie had won. To his credit, he has been there every step of the way for me. He’s one of the few people where I can pick up the phone and explain a situation, and not only does he understand it but he’s actually lived it.

So guess what? We moved to Florida, I started to travel again, and the work is consuming. And it has been tough familywise. It’s a job I live almost a hundred percent of the time with fatherly guilt, but it is also a job that has mattered to my kids. They’ve enjoyed seeing how into it I am. I think they realize that while it was a sacrifice, I’m doing something I’m proud of and it’s a job that can make a lasting difference.

All my life, I’ve loved working at companies where people are betting against them, where they don’t have leverage to be the biggest and the best. I want to go someplace where I’m needed. I don’t have to have the Number 1 logo on my business card or the biggest salary or the biggest bonus plan. It’s embarrassing to say it now, but when I was in my 20s, I thought life was about how many Tartar Control Crest tubes I could sell for Proctor & Gamble.

Then God brought these people into my life. Meg. My boys. Bob Naegele. Rick Warren. Charlie Mechem. Because of them, I have traded competition for compassion. I work for the underdogs, which is funny to say because they really are some of the best female athletes on the planet. They have the ability to be role models for girls all around the world.

All those years when I thought I was in control, God was organizing the details of my life to bring me here.Golf doesn’t have the same borders and obstacles that governments and country boundaries do. We have women from 32 different countries on tour, and we play golf in 15 different countries every year. Six years ago if I’d told you there were going to be players on my tour from Malaysia and Thailand and Taiwan, places where women weren’t even playing golf in those countries, let alone playing on the LPGA Tour, and now they do—well, it’s pretty cool. I see these little eight-year-olds when I’m standing in Kuala Lumpur, they’re looking up at both our stars and young Malaysian stars and realizing that their dreams can be a lot bigger than their mom’s. For those of us who raise boys, we don’t think much about that, but if you raise girls you do. We’ve sort of broken out and become a much bigger entity than we were, but the next big breakout is to be bigger than golf. We’re not just interesting to golf fans; we’re really a movement that can be important to moms and dads of daughters.

Let me tell you about my dream foursome. As commissioner, I am often asked that question, and people expect me to list some famous golfers—Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. Truthfully, my dream foursome includes me and my three sons—Austin, Wesley, and Connor. They’re not avid players, but we get to be together on the golf course a couple of times each year. I can’t wait to see what’s next for them in life or how Meg and I get to be a part of it. But I have to laugh a bit here, because I almost never got this chance. You see, after Austin and Wesley were born, I started praying for a girl.

Meg was amazed. “You really prayed for the sex of our baby?” she asked when she first heard me admit this.

“I really did,” I said.

“Well, God heard that, but I’m not sure how that’s going to manifest itself.”

Now here we are and Meg loves to tell people at dinner parties that I have three boys and 2,500 girls—which is how many tour players and teaching professionals make up the LPGA. Maybe she’s right. What I do know is that for all those years when I thought I was in control, God was organizing the details of my life to bring me here. I’m probably the least religious guy in the room, but I can see that much.

COPYRIGHT 2016 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Mike Whan

    Mike Whan is the commissioner of the LPGA, a role he assumed in January 2010. The organization's eighth commissioner, Whan came to the job after time in the corporate and sports worlds with Procter & Gamble, Wilson Sporting Goods, TaylorMade, and Mission Hockey.