By Larry Fine
RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) – Golf is getting younger, more global and more female, all to the delight of LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan.
Rather than cringe at the Asian dominance of the largely U.S. tour a decade ago, Whan embraced the global appeal of the game and now revels in the growth during his eight-year reign.
“My first day on this job, I was introduced at Madison Square Garden in 2009 as the new commissioner and when we went to the Q&A session, the first question I got was: ‘Commissioner Whan, what are you going to do about all the international influences on the tour?’
“I said, ’embrace it,'” Whan told Reuters in an interview this week ahead of the ANA Inspiration, the first women’s major of the 2017 season.
Whan said he told the reporters he would be the commissioner of a new kind of tour.
“Where players come from all over the world, and sponsors are calling us from all over the world and fans want to watch us in seven different website languages,” he said, adding that the global approach was challenging but with an upside 10 times higher.
There are 34 official events on the 2017 LPGA Tour schedule with four new events this year including one in Scotland and one in New Zealand. More than $67 million in total prize money is there for the taking.
Six years ago, there were 23 events on the schedule with an overall purse of $41.5 million.
“It’s a borderless game and as a result people from all over the world are finding it interesting whether they’re fans or sponsors or players,” said Whan.
Whan said Lydia Ko, a South Korean-born New Zealander who took the LPGA Tour by storm after winning as a 15-year-old, was “a game-changer.”
Ko became the youngest winner on the LPGA Tour, the youngest player to win a major, and the youngest world number one.
“I think when somebody breaks a barrier, all of a sudden everybody realizes that wasn’t a barrier anymore.
“And a bunch of 14-year-olds are standing on tees all around the world.”
The youth movement is in full swing in women’s golf.
The average age of winners in 2016 was 22.3, and more than 70 percent of winners last year were under the age of 24.
The top three finishers in the Player of the Year award and the top three in the Race to the CME Globe last year were all under 21.
Whan said the trend is fueled from the introductory levels, and that the growth of interest among young girls was the thing he is proudest of.
“When I joined back in 2008 we, together with the USGA, were running a program called Girls Golf, where we introduced young girls to the game in an all-girls environment. We were introducing about 4,500 girls a year.
“So we set a goal of trying to get to 50,000 girls a year by the time we got to Rio (Olympics). When we got to Rio, we were introducing 60,000 girls a year.
Whan predicted that “by the time we get to Japan (Tokyo 2020 Olympics) we’ll be introducing 100,000 girls a year and right now girls under the age of 18 is the fastest growing segment of golf in America.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)