In Naming a New Chief Executive, the U.S.G.A. Looks to the Women’s Game

In an imaginative decision for one of the most resolutely traditional organizations in American sports, the United States Golf Association announced Wednesday that its new chief executive would be Mike Whan, who has spent the last 11 years as the resourceful commissioner of the L.P.G.A. Tour.

Whan, 56, will replace Mike Davis, the top executive at the U.S.G.A., which conducts the United States Open and 13 other national championships. Five months ago, Davis, a 30-year U.S.G.A. employee, revealed that 2021 would be his last year with the organization. In January, in a surprise, Whan announced his intention to leave the L.P.G.A.

In an interview Tuesday, Whan said he called Davis before accepting the U.S.G.A.’s offer.

“I said, you know me and you know the job, is this a bad idea?” Whan recalled. “Mike said, ‘Stop talking, you need to get into this job.’”

Whan added: “I can stay in the game I love. I can have a seat that can make a real difference.”

Stu Francis, the U.S.G.A. president, said Tuesday that he had been thinking about Whan as a possible Davis successor since Whan made a presentation to the association’s executive committee four years ago. Noting that the U.S.G.A., a nonprofit with annual revenues of roughly $225 million, invests in myriad golf initiatives and helps writes golf’s rule book, Francis called running the U.S.G.A. “a multifaceted job.” Of Whan, Francis added: “He has all the skill sets and has demonstrated those skill sets.”

Whan, who will assume his U.S.G.A. duties at an unspecified date this summer, took over a struggling L.P.G.A. in 2010 and guided it through financial challenges, eventually expanded the tour from 24 events to 34 and nearly doubled the prize money. During the pandemic, when many tournaments were not held, Whan was able to preserve event sponsors, and the purses for the 18 tournaments the L.P.G.A. did host were not reduced.

As L.P.G.A. commissioner, Whan has spent years in regular contact with leaders of golf’s governing bodies, including the U.S.G.A., the PGA Tour and the R&A, the organization that conducts the British Open.

But at least in America, Whan will soon be the point man for a variety of issues facing golf, the thorniest of which is whether the sport’s leaders should enact new rules to inhibit the prodigious distances off the tee that can be achieved by technologically advanced golf balls and clubs. A recent report sponsored by the U.S.G.A. and the R&A, a co-partner overseeing the rule book, hinted at potential changes in equipment restrictions.

Asked about the report on Tuesday, Whan said: “There’s little argument that we’ve known distance is a problem for a long time.” He added, “I think change is coming and needs to — how grand that change is has yet to be determined.”

But Whan, who worked for Wilson Sporting Goods and TaylorMade Golf before joining the L.P.G.A., said there would still be room for innovation in the vast golf equipment market.

“I think all the people that hear about change think, ‘Oh, no, it’s over, they’re going to put a governor on and everybody’s going to have all the same distance,’” he said. “Nobody has any interest in doing that to either the game or the people that make the game exciting.”

Whan will also be central to ascertaining which courses will be selected as U.S.G.A. championship sites, particularly when it comes to the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open. Some of the most controversial decisions in Davis’s tenure stemmed from a desire to branch out from an established, if unofficial, rotation of traditional sites for the association’s premier events. That led to the U.S. Open’s being played in largely untested venues like Chambers Bay in Washington State and Erin Hills in Wisconsin with, at best, mixed results.

Lately, the U.S.G.A. has signaled its inclination to return to golf courses with a history of hosting the national golf championship, something endorsed by Francis and Whan.

“You’re going to see much more of a locking in on traditional sites,” Francis said.

Whan, who will be just the U.S.G.A.’s eighth chief executive, said players wanted the same thing. Cognizant that this year’s U.S. Women’s Open will be contested at the Olympic Club in San Francisco for the first time (it has hosted the U.S. Open five times), Whan said, “I can promise you right now there are players on the L.P.G.A. dreaming of Olympic.”

Davis, who is leaving the U.S.G.A. to pursue his interest in golf course design, endorsed Whan’s selection.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mike Whan for many years, and I view him as a trusted, strategic leader who has a proven track record of building collaborative partnerships,” Davis said in a statement. “I know the U.S.G.A. will be in great hands, and I look forward to partnering with Mike to ensure a smooth and successful transition.”

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