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Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth among players who speak optimistically of Mike Whan

LOS ANGELES – Two weeks ago it felt as if the game’s very best and the rules makers had never been so far apart.

The divide between the USGA/R&A and the top 1 percent of those who play for pay has been growing for years, largely driven by the concept that 300-plus-yard tee shots are hurting the game. The Distance Insights Report that was released on Feb. 4 opined that the combination of longer drivers and bigger golf courses is “detrimental to golf’s future.”

In professional circles, the report landed like an out-of-date balata golf ball.

As the unofficial spokesperson for PGA Tour types, Rory McIlroy had no interest in talking around the subject. “Honestly, I think this Distance Insight Report has been a huge waste of time and money, because that money that it’s cost to do this report could have been way better distributed to getting people into the game, introducing young kids to the game, introducing minorities to the game,” he said.

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And so it was that McIlroy and the other 15 members of the PGA Tour’s player advisory council learned on a video conference Tuesday evening that the USGA had tabbed Mike Whan to be the association’s next CEO.

“Surprised,” said one member of the PAC. “I actually thought we would hear [Whan] was going to work for the Tour.”

Whan announced last month that he was stepping down as commissioner of the LPGA after 11 years on the job, and he’s widely regarded as a marketing visionary with a players-first management philosophy. Mike Davis, who is stepping down as the USGA CEO, served as the association’s heart and soul for the better part of two decades, but his relationship with the Tour rank and file, particularly in recent years, had grown chilly to the point that the USGA hired former Tour player Jason Gore in 2019 to act as a bridge between the two groups.

The USGA announced on Wednesday that current LPGA commissioner Mike Whan will succeed Mike Davis as its new CEO.

With that history and the ongoing distance debate as the backdrop, Whan’s hiring gave the PAC and policy board plenty to talk about. Asked the reaction to the news in the virtual meeting, McIlroy thought for a moment. “Optimism,” he said.

For the players, this isn’t a question of who is in charge so much as it is a perceived change in leadership styles.

“They’ve done a lot of good things to shift around some viewpoints. Having former players and bringing in guys from the business world who kind of have an impact on things from rule changes to whatever,” Jordan Spieth said. “The announcement was made on the PAC call and there was some significant support from some guys about that news.”

How Whan’s hiring might change the distance narrative is unknown, but for the game’s elite who have been pulled into the conversation, there seemed to be the idea that with a new leader comes a new opportunity for dialogue.

In the wake of the distance report McIlroy appeared to support the idea of bifurcating the rules instead of a wholesale change, but that’s never seemed to be a popular option with either the rules makers or the equipment manufacturers. There is no indication that Whan would be open to the idea of bifurcation, but there was a consensus among Tour types that he would view the debate through a different lens.

“I don’t know how the public feels about having the same set of rules or if they want different rules,” Spieth said. “It will be interesting to see what happens with having that experience of dealing with players at the professional level, day-to-day like a commissioner would.”

For the likes of Spieth and McIlroy there were few, if any, first-hand anecdotes of what Whan might bring to the job. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson admitted that, like many other players, he’s not familiar with Whan. But there’s enough background for players to be intrigued.

“With the LPGA and the [Ladies European Tour] trying to do something means Whan is open to collaboration, which I like,” McIlroy said. “I was surprised when I found out about it. I thought they would have went with somebody who was already inside the USGA. The fact that they’ve outsourced is a good thing.”

That the USGA “outsourced” to someone who spent more than a decade looking at the game through the eyes of a professional is what makes Wednesday’s news so compelling.

“He’s obviously done a really nice job over the years at the LPGA, so I hope he has the same impact with the USGA,” Adam Scott said.

Whan’s job will impact every facet of the game and whatever his leadership style it’s safe to say that every voice will be considered. What seemed to encourage the Tour players is the prospect of a relationship that suddenly doesn’t seem so chilly.