USGA CEO Mike Whan went back to the site of his first golf job (in Ohio) after 40 years

“This doesn’t look anything like it did back then,” Mike Whan laughed before sitting down at a high-top table in the bar area of Coldstream Country Club.

Whan has spent 95% of his adult life in golf between Wilson Sporting Goods, TaylorMade Golf Company, the LPGA and his current position as the United States Golf Association (USGA) CEO.

On Friday, Whan, an Anderson High School graduate, returned to Coldstream Country Club, one of the places that helped fuel his passion for golf. It was his first time back in nearly 40 years.

USGA CEO Mike Whan (middle) became an honorary member at Coldstream Country Club on Friday, April 19, 2024. Whan became a grounds crew member at the club when he was a student at Anderson High School. (Photo courtesy USGA)

Tough, hourly work

Driving down Asbury Road Friday morning was a blast from the past for Whan, who now resides in Gladstone, New Jersey. Everything came back to him.

He remembered the lake near the road, where he shocked himself while working on a pump with a screwdriver, waking up a few moments later on his back. One fairway jogged a memory of a one-sided battle with a hornet’s nest that he hit with his head while cutting fairway aprons. With the wave of hornets chasing and stinging him, he jumped into the lake. A few hours later, he was left with severe swelling while watching Jimmy Buffett serenade a sold-out Riverbend crowd with “Margaritaville.”

“I wasn’t missing the concert,” he laughed.

Whan had caddied in Illinois before moving to Cincinnati as a sophomore in high school. He wanted a job on a local grounds crew and was introduced to Coldstream Superintendent Cal Gruber.

2023 American Express
2023 American Express

USGA CEO Mike Whan putts on the 10th green during the first round of the 2023 American Express in La Quinta, California. (Photo: Taya Gray/The Desert Sun)

Gruber showed Whan a barn full of every piece of equipment needed to maintain a golf course. The only problem? It was off-limits to the rookie.

“He (Gruber) goes, ‘Here’s my deal with all my people. You have to make it through one summer as a bunker boy. If you don’t quit, then next year I’ll teach you to ride all that stuff,’” Whan said.

Like many high school students, Whan spent his summers in the sand – and nowhere else. From 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 in the afternoon, Whan was edging, weeding and raking bunkers and working on drainage.

“It’s a miserable experience. It’s tough, hourly work,” Whan said. “I worked here every summer until I graduated from college.”

‘Where I learned the game.’

Being the USGA CEO comes with plenty of perks. One week ago, Whan had birdies on 9 and 12 at Augusta before the Masters. Forty years ago, Whan’s interest peaked at free golf in the evenings at Coldstream and weekly showdowns with grounds crews across the city.

Whan would tee off at 4:50 p.m. on the weekdays and get 18 holes in before supper. He’d return home and impress his dad by playing at local courses like Hyde Park and Camargo.

“I got to play all these courses that probably wouldn’t have me as a member,” he said. “Those were two great perks as a young kid.”

‘I can get passionate about golf.’

USGA CEO Mike Whan speaks during a press conference during a practice round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at The Country Club. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

When he graduated from Miami Ohio in 1987, Whan took a job at Proctor & Gamble as the brand manager for Crest Toothpaste. A recruiting call about joining Wilson Sporting Goods’ golf division was enough to lure him away.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘you don’t leave P&G for Wilson. Play golf on the weekends, but have a real job,’” said Whan, who was a 23-year-old member of Maketewah Country Club at the time.

“I love P&G, but it’s hard to get passionate about tartar control. I can get passionate about golf.”

‘Weird career path’

Suddenly, Whan’s career in golf was revived. The leap to Wilson launched a unique journey that’s taken him to every facet of the game.

After grounds crew duties, he was on the manufacturing side of things at Wilson. He later helped lead the LPGA to unprecedented growth as its commissioner from 2010 to 2021 by embracing the international talent coming on tour and making million-dollar deals for TV rights, leading to more tournaments, higher purses and popularity.

Now he’s part of the governing side of golf, working to advance, sustain and make accessible a game that is 50% bigger than it was 10 years ago.

“Usually, people in golf are in equipment, tour work or they are in governance, but nobody is in all three,” Whan said. “It’s a really weird career path.”

Still, Whan’s passion for golf can be traced back to Cincinnati. Professional golfers would laugh at him for evening strolls on the course to watch a grounds crew get a hole ready for a tournament.

“I loved that 15 people showed up on a hole and 15 minutes later it was ready for tomorrow’s championship,” Whan said. “That’s what we did.”

Whan was never edging a bunker in cut-off shorts and a helmet thinking he’d one day be great in the golf business. But those long hours on sun-splashed summer days in Cincinnati had a bigger impact than he realized at the time.

“I learned to love the game here.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek