Michael Whan's legacy as LPGA commissioner will be judged by the number of tournaments he can put on the schedule and the size of the purses, but last week at the Bell Micro Classic in Mobile the focus was elsewhere. Four months into a job for which he uprooted his family and moved across the country, Whan was amid a confused and heartbroken LPGA reeling from the mysterious death of one of its own, 25-year-old tour player Erica Blasberg. On the eve of the opening round, before a membership of golfers from 28 countries, Whan addressed the group in an emotional memorial service at the Magnolia Grove clubhouse. He soon realized that he was standing before a sisterhood. "When I got the job, Juli Inkster told me, 'Welcome to the family,' but I didn't realize what that meant until the memorial service," Whan says. "It was like 300 people hugging me at the same time. We are a business, and these are people making a living, but they also lean on each other, and they need each other. It was hard not to walk out of there and not feel closer to everybody, not be a little more observant and pay more attention to each other."
Blasberg, who joined the LPGA tour in 2005 and made 50 of 91 cuts, with a career-best eighth-place finish at the SBS Open in 2008, was found dead in her Henderson, Nev., home on May 9 after police responded to a 911 call. A spokesman for the Henderson Police Department classified the case as an ongoing "death investigation," and the Clark County Coroner's office says it could take four to six weeks to determine the cause of death.
The loss of a peer in the prime of her life cast a pall over the normal business of tournament golf, but the players did their best to cope. Irene Cho, Blasberg's closest friend on tour, shot a 69 in the opening round, kissing her EB wristband after each of her four birdies. Golfers and caddies wore purple ribbons on their caps and shirts, and hugs on the 18th green lasted longer than usual. Their world would not be normal, not for a while anyway, a reality lost on no one.
"Erica's passing," says Lorie Kane, "it takes your breath away."
Seeing the 45-year-old Whan navigate a difficult situation further underscored what has been a growing consensus among the golfers. "I feel like we finally have the right commissioner," says tour veteran Michele Redman.
Adds Inkster, noting a significant change from Whan's predecessor, Carolyn Bivens, "There is no grumbling from the players. And if he's got that, he's living large."
The endorsements do not erase the myriad challenges facing Whan and the tour, whose schedule has dwindled from 34 events two years ago to 25 in 2010, but the newfound unity might make it easier to overcome them. Five months into the calendar year the Bell Micro was only the third LPGA tournament played in the U.S., which, depending on your point of view, means that LPGA players are either global superstars or weary vagabonds. The truth lies somewhere in between.
"A lot of sports entities look at us and say, 'We'd like to look like that,' " Whan says. "As I said to the [players], companies that have a global outlook are all better off for it. Our viewership numbers prove we have fans coming from everywhere because we have players and sponsors coming from everywhere."
That globalization has given the tour sponsor options outside the U.S. and its struggling economy, but the branching out hasn't been without travails. Unlike the PGA Tour, with its neatly packaged West Coast, Florida and Texas swings, the LPGA zigzags around the globe, and doing so can be brutal on a golf game. In February and March the LPGA held events in Thailand, Singapore and Carlsbad, Calif. In April the tour went to Rancho Mirage, Calif., Jamaica and Mexico. On the docket for May? Mobile, Gladstone, N.J., and Rio de Janeiro.
Inkster, 49, recalls her early years on tour, loading a van with her kids and her clubs and driving from tournament to tournament, an impossibility these days.