Ever have one of those days? Mike Whan is having one of those years.
Not that Whan, commissioner of the LPGA Tour since 2010, is unique among the heads of sports organizations who have had their schedules jumbled, then jumbled again, all while trying to keep athletes safe and healthy. In the last seven months, Whan has dealt with a worldwide pandemic, tournament cancellations and postponements, and positive COVID-19 tests for his players and caddies.
But Whan wasn’t counting on what the tour faces this week at the ANA Inspiration in Rancho Mirage.
“Obviously, we’re going to be challenged by the heat,” said Whan. “We didn’t expect to be challenged by both heat and air quality, but it looks like we’ll be challenged by both. We’ll keep an open mind how we can address that to make sure that in the year 2020, where health has been a priority, that we’re not going to take a backseat on health as it relates to this year.”
The California wildfires sending smoke into the skies of the Coachella Valley are just the latest challenge for the LPGA since it restarted in July after five months of no play because of the coronavirus. The ANA Inspiration is the sixth tournament for the women’s tour since the restart. The tour has survived the restart with just nine positive results out of more than 3,300 tests for the coronavirus, including a positive result Tuesday for England’s Charley Hull. She withdrew from the event.
“If I was being totally honest, and that usually gets me in trouble, but I thought this was going to be harder than it’s been through six weeks,” Whan said on a Zoom call from Florida before he comes to the ANA Inspiration later this week. “That doesn’t mean — as Heather (Daly-Donofrio, LPGA Communications and Tour Operations Officer) and I talk about all the time — that doesn’t mean the hard part hasn’t hit yet.”
When the ANA Inspiration was postponed from its original dates the first weekend of April because of the coronavirus, it took the tour less than two weeks to reschedule the event for September. While the tour understood those dates would feature hotter temperatures than the April dates, Whan said the ANA Inspiration was not a tournament that could just be passed by for a year.
“In the LPGA, as most of you know, there are very few events that (Hall of Famer) Juli Inkster grew up watching and (rookie) Haley Moore grew up watching and both dreaming of the same event,” Whan said of the ANA Inspiration, being played for the 49th time this week. “Every player playing in this event, and even the ones who didn’t get into this event, grew up as a kid watching people cross that bridge and going past either Dinah Shore (statue) or the Dinah Shore Trophy onto that 18th green, jumping in Poppie’s Pond.
“So this is an important tradition to keep alive, not just for the LPGA, but for the generations of kids sitting at home watching this in their own COVID challenges and being house-bound and still keep those dreams alive,” Whan added.
Travel restrictions hurt the women’s tour
The LPGA has faced more than just issues with players being healthy at tournaments. Getting players to tournaments has been another issue, highlighted by defending ANA Inspiration champion Jin Young Ko not being in the field this week because of travel restrictions from South Korea. Global travel restrictions have limited where and when the LPGA can hold tournaments throughout the year.
“We couldn’t go to Canada, couldn’t go to China, couldn’t go to Taiwan, and I’m expecting to hear that from Korea and Japan (this week),” Whan said. “Meaning you could cross the border, but you’d have to quarantine for 14 days, and quarantine as I think you know over there is different than sometimes the quarantine that Americans think of. You literally are not outside for 14 days.”
“From a statistical standpoint, we’re obviously doing really well, but that doesn’t mean we want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Daly-Donofrio said. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got a lot of golf left, a lot of tournaments left. We don’t want to get complacent, and we need to stay vigilant and committed to our processes and protocols.”
With no guarantee the coronavirus or travel restrictions will disappear soon, Whan said the LPGA is reshaping its 2021 schedule, trying to limit the number of border crossings for players and likely shifting a spring swing through Asia into the fall. The April date for the ANA Inspiration should remain the same as usual.
Most LPGA players are just thrilled to have tournaments played at all after not having a chance to earn a check from mid-February until the July restart. And many of those players credit Whan’s work in getting the tour started again.
“The LPGA has done an incredible job. Obviously, we’re using the CDC guidelines of setting up our protocol, and when we’re inside the ropes we have the option to wear the mask or not, but for the caddies or anyone that’s touching flags or rakes,” said 2016 ANA Inspiration winner Lydia Ko. “Everyone is doing a great job of sanitizing the hands and just being careful, and the six-feet rule. Obviously, it’s a little bit harder in some cases when you’re with your caddie, but I think for most of the players here and everybody involved, I think we’re all trying to be as careful as possible.”
The spread of the coronavirus has other impacts on LPGA players other than travel, Whan said.
“It’s not an enjoyable life on tour. We talked a lot about it last week with a bunch of players and caddies at Wal-Mart (NW Arkansas Championship),” Whan said. “Part of the tour life is the social part. It’s getting to know the sponsors and the fans. It’s the interactions you didn’t expect to have in the parking lot with somebody.”
At the ANA Inspiration, there are no spectators on the course this week, and officials for tournament sponsor All-Nippon Airways won’t be traveling from Japan to attend the event.
With all the challenges, including the Kia Classic in San Diego recently announcing it will not be played at the end of this month, Whan and his team are trying to be positive about the rest of 2020 and the new schedule for 2021.
Sponsors staying with the tour
“We’ll add another full-field domestic-based event here in the States in the middle of October to kind of fill in some of that slack that would have otherwise been time in Asia,” Whan said. “I’m really proud to say that all of our title sponsors that were scheduled for ’21 are still with us in ’21, so there’s nobody stepping off the official event schedule. So I feel good about what you’ll see from us in ’21.”
That doesn’t mean Whan and the rest of the LPGA are convinced everything will go as well in the coming months as things have gone in the last two months.
“Almost all of our sponsors realize and already have in Q1 that they’ll have to have a fan/no-fan contingency,” Whan said. “Hoping you don’t have to use it but hard to predict in the meantime. Like I said, I haven’t given up hope on (on fans in) November and December, but maybe I should.”
Larry Bohannan is The Desert Sun golf writer. He can be reached at (760) 778-4633 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at Sun.@Larry_Bohannan.