Staradvertiser.com; By Ann Miller; POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Apr 01, 2012
As commissioner of a truly global tour, Michael Whan says it just makes sense to have an event (or two) in the islands
ANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. » If you are an LPGA fan — and Michael Whan is passionate about his golf tour — it has become easy to believe that good things come in threes.
The LPGA is returning to Hawaii for this month's (April 18-21) LPGA Lotte Championship at Ko Olina the same year Stephanie Kono and Ayaka Kaneko join Michelle Wie on tour.
It is the most compelling presence Hawaii has had on tour. It comes as Whan, who became the LPGA's eighth commissioner two years ago, is beginning to heal some of the scars left from his predecessor.
Carolyn Bivens is best remembered as the commissioner who unilaterally imposed media restrictions, demanding story and photo rights for the LPGA. It caused a media boycott at the 2006 Fields Open in Hawaii — Wie's first home tournament as a 16-year-old pro.
Bivens also joyfully announced the LPGA's Korean rights TV deal with J Golf —at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay. SBS held the rights at the time.
Whan could not have come to Hawaii fast enough. A 25-year LPGA presence was extinguished when SBS left, after Angela Stanford overtook Wie in the final round in 2009.
Now, Whan gives three reasons the LPGA is back:
» Time zone: "Hawaii is great for a truly global tour. We are a tour with players from around the world, sponsors from around the world and certainly fans from around the world. I think it's really cool we're going to finish on a Saturday, which is Sunday in Korea, which is important to our title sponsor and important for all our TV partners around the world."
» Ambience: "Our sponsors and clients love going to Hawaii. Who wouldn't? It's a great way to celebrate your partnership."
» History: "There is a base there for us. Hawaii has been good to us for a lot of years. We've got, obviously, a superstar player born and raised in Hawaii. That's good for us."
Because returning to Hawaii "just seemed to make sense on a lot of fronts," Whan said the tour was actively seeking a return when he came in.
"It was a place we wanted to go back to, like Kingsmill and Toledo," he recalled. "These are places the LPGA should play. We were probably actively pursuing sponsors for Hawaii in at least three different countries."
Then Lotte, Korea's fifth-largest business conglomerate, came to the LPGA with plans for its first global sports sponsorship outside Asia. It had a nudge from J Golf, which is the tournament's presenting sponsor. A $1.7 million tournament, with a three-year contract, was Whan's if he wanted it.
"They said we know you have interest in Hawaii," Whan said. "We've got some ideas; can we sit down and talk? Once it got to that stage it came together pretty fast. It probably took us four months between first conversation and last."
It was announced in January, which gives organizers less than four months to put it together. But when they build it, LPGA players will come. At the last full-field event, 49 of the top 50 showed. Hall of Famer Juli Inkster, the only one missing, was following in the gallery while she healed from elbow surgery.
Inkster, 51, remains one of the tour's most recognizable names. It is a truly global tour now. There are 128 active international players from 27 countries — 42 from South Korea —and many are in their 20s.
"If people in Hawaii come to the event thinking Olympics and not LPGA it will be more of a fit," Whan said. "My point is, if you're expecting the 1972 LPGA to come, we don't look like that, we don't act like that, we don't play like that."
There will be TV cameras from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, France and the United States at Ko Olina. Whan can call his players the best in the world without reservation.
"In a lot of sports, the best in the world compete against each other every once in a while," he said. "We compete against each other every week. The best 50 in the world come together and tee it up. It's truly a global event."
Whan said he "realized pretty quick" that if he failed at this job he would "limit opportunities for young girls to play the game of their life." TV viewership was up 40 percent last year and "we added four or five new corporate sponsors in the last 30 days. We haven't added four or five in the last three years." The tour is making The Evian its fifth major next year.
Whan has announced five new tournaments for this year — four in North America — and expects one more before it is all over. He is talking to sponsors about a second Hawaii event, which makes sense with all the infrastructure that must be brought in for one event.
"In a perfect world, we'd play back-to-back and it would be fantastic," Whan said. "Or island-hop to the next one. But I don't think it's life-or-death, it's not required. I'm pretty sure Lotte, with a $1.7 million purse and TV air in more than 100 countries … I'll take that. That's a pretty good opportunity for us."
It is a wonderful opportunity for Kono, Kaneko and Wie, and for Hawaii to watch them after a long absence. Yani Tseng, the world's best player, also confirmed she will be here.
Wie, stuck in an agonizing slump, might be happiest of all.
"I haven't been back at Ko Olina since I don't remember when," said Wie, who used to practice there. "I just want to be home again."
Whan, 47, has children around Wie's age. He, as much as probably anyone outside the Wie family, would love for her to have a breakout performance and return to the form that has taken her to three top-three finishes in Hawaii. Wie in contention is a force of marketing nature.
"When I look at Michelle I think, I hope, she's just relaxed and has fun. I want her to enjoy this …," Whan said. "Don't grind out your first full-time year as a professional golfer. The rest of the world would love to change places with you, so stop and enjoy it.
"I've watched Michelle my last two years. Before a late pro-am and during a rain delay she's always got a book out, headset in the corner, a highlighter. She looks like I looked when I was 22. Imagine being whatever she was — 14th best player in the world and 18 credit hours at Stanford. I can't imagine either one. I certainly can't imagine both together.
"I hope she has some time to really enjoy the incredible things she's done at this stage and I hope she smiles her way around 2012. I think if she can get back to just being able to focus on golf, no one, no matter how cynical you want to be, can doubt her upside. She is so extremely talented that I think it's just a matter of time for Michelle and who cares how long it takes?
"At her age … as I always say, tell me how many golfers have had their best golf before they were 22? You got to look pretty hard to find one, even one. Everybody plays their best golf after 22. So if her best golf is still to come, that's pretty cool for golf fans."