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Mike Whan, Jon Podany: Quarterback walk-ons, brand managers, now providing clear path for LPGA

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No one paid much attention to Mike Whan and Jon Podany the first time they were on the same team.

Now the top two executives at the LPGA Tour, they were aspiring quarterbacks as freshmen at Miami of Ohio. Neither had any idea how often, or where, their paths would cross over the next 30 years. It was only clear it most likely would not be on the football field.

"When we walked on, there were probably 14 quarterbacks in camp," Podany said. "Eight guys were on a full ride, and six of us were walk-ons. A couple of them left and said, 'This is crazy.' We were killing ourselves. It was tough to get time on the scout team as a freshman.

"But Mike and I ... I remember him distinctly," he said. "Because he had one of those Peyton Manning-type facemasks that was a little deeper — I'm not sure if it was by choice or just happened to be the helmet he got — and because he had a unique name."

Whan painted a bleaker outlook of their days with the RedHawks.

"I lasted about three weeks," Whan said. "Jon lasted about three years. He's a much better athlete."

The LPGA Tour starts this week with the PureSilk Bahamas Classic on Paradise Island, and while the attention is on the tour's current version of the Big Three — Inbee Park, Stacy Lewis and Suzann Pettersen — the former walk-on quarterbacks just might be the biggest stars.

Whan starts his fourth full season as the commissioner. Podany is the chief marketing officer of the LPGA. Both were finalists to be LPGA Tour commissioner. The tour wound up with the ultimate two-for-one deal.

Whan is the consummate salesman, with a deep belief in the product and whose every word teems with energy. Podany packs 15 years of experience at the PGA Tour, where he was highly regarded in business development and brand management.

It was a good job, a stable job with one of the strongest and most financially sound organizations in sports. And it was a big risk for Podany to leave for the LPGA Tour, which was reeling financially from the stubborn style of Carolyn Bivens, who was forced out after four years.

That changed one day when an old friend stuck his head in the door.

Whan had gone to PGA Tour headquarters to meet with Commissioner Tim Finchem when he stopped by to see Podany. The new commissioner couldn't take his eyes off the ultimate black book — in this case, a large, white board in Podany's office that was filled with PGA Tour corporate partners.

"Jon said, 'You love that board, don't you?' I said, 'I need all that stuff,'" Whan said. "We went to lunch. I started talking and I was selling. Jon said, 'Are you really asking me to come work there? I said, 'I need you.'"

The final pitch was personal. Podany has three daughters, all very athletic. Whan asked him to consider a job that matters to young female athletes.

It worked.

"It was a big risk at the time," Podany said. "But it was a unique opportunity to do something together. I felt like with my PGA Tour experience, I could bring something to the LPGA Tour. Having three daughters was a factor, too. I felt like the opportunity to have an impact in the women's world could be something they found value in."

And just like that, Whan and Podany were reunited.

They were hired out of college by Proctor & Gamble. They were roommates while at P&G (both wound up in brand management), and their future wives were roommates in the same apartment complex in Cincinnati. Podany soon took a job with the PGA Tour.

"I remember saying to him, 'You can work in golf?' We're talking shampoo and tartar, and he's in golf,' Whan said. "And then a year later, I took the job running the golf balls and gloves division for Wilson Sporting Goods."

They didn't see much of each other for 20 years. Podany stayed at the tour. Whan went from Wilson to TaylorMade-adidas. He served a brief stint as chief marketing officer of Britesmile, Inc., and then became CEO of what eventually became Mission-Itech Hockey, which made equipment used by more than 50 per cent of NHL players.

Their paths next crossed in a most unusual way.

Both were finalists to be the next commissioner. According to Podany, the search firm originally identified Whan, who pointed the firm in Podany's direction.

"It wasn't awkward," Podany said. "To his credit ... he recommended me. He told them, 'I don't want to go down the path unless you determine Jon is not the guy for you.'"

Podany said his interview and the feedback went well, but the board was nervous about another commissioner who didn't have chief executive experience.

"Given what happened with Carolyn, they didn't want to take the risk of someone who didn't have CEO-level leadership," Podany said. "I called Mike and said, 'They're going to be coming back at you because you have the experience they're looking for."

And it wasn't long before Whan found Podany as the perfect complement for a big project.

Whan and Podany were co-stars on stage at the Ritz-Carlton two months ago, sitting comfortably on high stools in a ballroom buzzing with the best news the LPGA has had in more than a decade. The week before Thanksgiving, they delivered a 2014 schedule that proved to be the best indicator yet that the LPGA was gaining momentum.

It featured 32 official tournaments, up from only 23 tournaments in 2011, with additions in key golf markets like Michigan and San Francisco.

Also added was an unofficial tournament called the International Crown, with eight countries competing in match play, an event that might feel more like true Olympic competition than when golf actually returns to the Olympics.

"We are excited where we are," Whan said. "But by no means are we finished."

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