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LPGA commissioner Mike Whan determined to make the tour bigger and better

During a busy lunch hour last week at Foley's, a New York City sports bar, Mike Whan made short work of an order of chicken fingers with ketchup. It was a meal that a kid would have loved. That was fitting because there is a lot of kid in Whan, the LPGA commissioner who is starting his 10th year on the job.

Whan was dining quickly, his usual speed, because presently he had to stand up to talk about a new initiative for the LPGA, one of his favorite subjects.

"What I'm best at," he said a little while later, "is that I don't see obstacles very long, and I have zero patience. So getting from A to B is pretty quick to me because I don't see obstacles. I get there in a hurry, but I make a bunch of really public mistakes that smarter, more methodical, patient people wouldn't make."

If Whan's style during nearly a decade in the position has produced an occasional error, his substance -- energetic and engaging, smart and innovative -- has been largely responsible for stabilizing and subsequently enhancing the LPGA Tour, which kicks off its 2019 schedule Thursday with the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.

"It's been an amazing 10 years," said eight-time LPGA winner Brittany Lincicome, who joined the tour in 2005. "I hope it runs for another 10 years. He's really making us bigger and better."

After taking over in early 2010, with the economy still reeling from the Great Recession and the tour attempting to mend missteps by Whan's predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, Whan had a tough task. The LPGA schedule consisted of only 24 events, 10 fewer than in 2008.

"I won't lie to you. It wasn't easy the first few years," Whan said. "I'm not sure it was an LPGA issue as much as it was a recession issue. I heard the term 'frozen' a lot. 'My marketing budget is frozen. Our hiring is frozen.' It was a pretty popular term in 2010, '11 and '12. That was tough. It's still not easy, but we feel like we're running downhill. For the first few years, the treadmill was on seven or eight."

The season-opening LPGA event in Lake Buena Vista, Florida -- in which celebrities compete alongside champions from the past two seasons -- is the first of 33 official tournaments (plus the Solheim Cup between the United States and Europe). Total 2019 prize money is $70.55 million, up from $65.35 in 2018.

"When I joined the LPGA, one of the players said, 'Just give us some events, and see if we can play for a $1 million purse,'" Whan said. "To think where we were in 2010, it's crazy to think about the jump forward."

Forward -- but not close to the finish line.

"It's personal to me," said Whan, who turns 54 next month. "I wouldn't have left the LPGA any time in the last 10 years because I didn't think I'd completed what anybody asked me to do. These kids -- they hate it when I say that, but I feel like a father on tour -- deserve more. When I meet the person who can deliver more, I will be out of the way in a hurry or work for that person because that's the right thing to do. Playing for $70 million is great. We ought to be playing for more than $100 million."

Whan measures progress not only by how many women get wealthy playing professional golf but also by how many can make a comfortable living in the sport.

"If you're a top-300 woman golfer in the world, that should be enough financially," he said. "Right now, that number is probably 80, and things drop off pretty quickly. I hate to think that you make it to the LPGA, grinding to make cuts, and you're still calling a rich uncle at the end of the year."

The winner of the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship will receive $1.5 million, the largest single prize in women's golf history. In contrast, the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup champion will collect $15 million at the end of a season in which total purses are a handful of times greater than LPGA prizes.

"There is still a significant four-to-one -- sometimes five-to-one -- gap relative to viewership on course and on air from a PGA Tour event to LPGA event," Whan said. "There is a reason you pay a lot more for an ad on the Super Bowl than an ad on the Cooking Channel. You have a lot more eyeballs. I'm proud by the growth we've had, but the same is true between the PGA Tour and LPGA today. At least in America, we deliver about a fourth of the total eyeballs."

Whan continues to strive for more network broadcasts, a staple for the PGA Tour but still relatively rare for the LPGA. For the first time, NBC will air live weekend coverage of the first and last events of the LPGA schedule as well as the KPMG Women's PGA Championship and Women's British Open, with GOLF Channel carrying all 33 events.

"It's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing," Whan said. "I would love to know what would happen if we were on [network] 30-some times."

In the meantime, Whan notes the progress that has occurred from 2010 to the present: from 200 hours on television, with the bulk tape-delayed airing, in about 10 countries to more than 400 hours, with nearly 90 percent live, in 172 countries. Whan utilizes the LPGA's global makeup, once considered a weakness, as a strength. There were winners from 10 countries in 2018, and the tour will visit a dozen countries this season.

Most places the tour visits, so does Whan, traveling with a six-foot strip of memory foam for his bad back.

"He's truly on the first tee in Thailand, Singapore -- all these countries. He's always out on the course with us," Lincicome said. "He's always asking, 'What can I be doing for you? How do we grow the LPGA? How do we make it better?' And the commissioner, obviously, before, it was just totally different. He's always visible. We can always ask him questions. I can call and text him at any time."

Sometimes in pursuit of a new sponsor, Whan makes a long trip for a short conversation.

"You fly to meet a CEO, but all of a sudden, there is a crisis going on in their business," Whan said. "They'll say, 'Mike, I've got three minutes.' I always tell someone, if we have a limited time, let's talk about you, not me. Then, if I come back, I promise not to waste your time. I'm not going to do it unless I can do something that's going to make a difference in your business. That usually catches people off-guard, and they usually end up giving you 15 minutes."

Long ago, it was evident that Whan gives his all on behalf of the players.

"He's someone who really cares about us and our tour," eighth-year LPGA player Lizette Salas said. "He really wants to make it better than it was for the next generation. That takes a special person. We don't just think of him as the commissioner but as our friend."