Less than two years before Mike Whan took over the LPGA Tour, Annika Sorenstam retired. Less than six months into his tenure, Lorena Ochoa followed suit.
Losing such icons — Sorenstam is arguably the greatest female golfer of all-time, and Ochoa is as charismatic as she is talented — would challenge any sports venture. The LPGA even more so.
When Whan was appointed commissioner in October 2009 — his official start date was January — the tour was in trouble. Tournament sponsors were bailing, and players had forced the resignation of Whan's predecessor, Carolyn Bivens.
Sorenstam had announced her exit two days after winning the 2008 Michelob Ultra at Kingsmill, and Ochoa was plotting her June 2010 departure.
"I'm sure my reaction wasn't commissioner-like at all," Whan said of Ochoa's announcement. "My reaction was purely fan-based, which is, 'I can't imagine the LPGA right now without you.' Then we started talking about Brett Favre and (how) coming back from retirement in America is certainly doable."
Ochoa, and Sorenstam for that matter, have resisted Favre-like returns. Still, under Whan's direction, the LPGA has corrected course.
This week's Kingsmill Championship is among the tour's four new events in 2012, and the circuit's depth is evidenced by the seven first-time winners in 19 tournaments. Most recently, 15-year-old Lydia Ko, a South Korean living in New Zealand, captured the Women's Canadian Open by three shots, becoming the tour's youngest-ever champion and first amateur winner since JoAnne Carner in 1969.
Ko is not entered at Kingsmill.
"What's true about sports is, when somebody hands the baton off, it gets picked up a lot faster than anybody thought it would," Whan said. "We started the 2011 season with this constant headline: Will anybody ever be Lorena or Annika again and truly lead the world by that much margin?
"And by the end of '11, Yani (Tseng) had pretty much lapped the field. Nobody guessed that, probably including Yani, when the season began. … What's clear now is the chase is renewed. That stuff is tough when it happens because the tour does start to build up a consistent face or look. Whether it was (Nancy) Lopez or Sorenstam or Ochoa, they really did become a bit of a face of the tour.
"I've talked to (Annika): 'Do you think you could come back, make cuts, make money, if you played 10 times a year?' As any selfish commissioner would ask. She made the comment to me one time: 'If I choose to play, I choose to be the best I can be, and I know what kind of commitment that takes, and it's a lot more than Thursday to Sunday."
A former golf and hockey equipment executive, Whan, 47, grew up in Ohio. He cut greens and caddied, and sheepishly recalls setting some unfair pins for a member-member tournament the morning after some college-aged revelry.
The club president was not amused.
Some other questions and answers from our interview:
Q: When you accepted the job, you said your job was to listen, learn and then lead. Where are you in that process? Leading yet?
A: "I hope I haven't waited three years to lead. … But thank goodness that was the strategy. I'll never forget my first tournament owners association meeting, which was a bunch of title sponsors in the room, and I asked them, 'If you were me, what would you be working on?' And that list was so different than what I thought. … I turned my list into their list, and I think that's how we got the ship going in the right direction.
"That led us to a phrase we call 'role reversal.' It's our No. 1 sort of cultural mantra at the LPGA, which is, we need to spend less time talking about where the pins are and where the tee boxes are going to go and where the TV stands are going to be mounted, and a lot more time talking about the people who are actually going to be writing the checks. … We don't talk about a tournament internally until we talk about the title sponsor for the first 50 percent of the meeting.
"After that first six months or so, I said I want to be the most customer-centric sports organization in the world. That sounds like a real bold statement, but if you step back and think about it, I'm not sure the competition's as tough as you think.
"There's not many sports, if there's even one, in my opinion, where the athletes know more and care more about the people writing the checks to put them in business. I think NASCAR's been pretty good over the years, but I feel pretty comfortable taking them on. …
"I think that's made a difference. Our players realize that if we're going to keep playing golf for a living, we're going to do it because we're better with the customers than where the customers could (otherwise) spend their money.
"I'm pretty sure when Derek Jeter pulled into Yankee Stadium last night he wasn't made aware of key sponsors, but I promise you Brittany Lincicome was when she signed in for the CN Women's Canadian Open."
Q: I've always thought your players were great with media and fans.
A: "I didn't teach our players how to be more customer centric. They taught me. All I did was make sure that mentality went from head to toe in the organization. I feel pretty comfortable to say that it does. I've also said, and it's true, that of all the commissioners in all the sports, I've got to be the one who spends the least amount of time worrying about their athletes.
"I just don't spend my time worrying about how my athletes are treating fans, media, sponsors or each other. And I think not too many commissioners could make that comment."
Q: All the first-time winners on the tour this year. What does that say about your depth?
A: "That (depth) becomes incredibly obvious when you see players coming from other tours or college that are just lighting it up in competition they're in, but come to the LPGA and realize how hard it is to win here. It's just so deep right now.
"I think there was a time not too long ago where you threw a blanket over about 10 names, plus or minus, and I could probably pick my winner. You'd have a terrible time in Vegas now with the LPGA because it's just so competitive, so deep.
"It's not only all parts of the world. It's all ages. We have incredible 18-year-olds, 28-year-olds and 38-year-olds. It's a pretty interesting time on tour."
Q: Did you find this job, or did it find you?
A: "Oh, it found me. … "I have zero experience leading a league of athletes. I remember saying the only time I'll be comfortable in this job is when I'm sitting across the table from a title sponsor, because I've done a title sponsor for just about every sport in the world. …
"I think I probably led the league in rookie mistakes my first year."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun