2002: Golf People - Unlikely pioneer
Suzy Whaley was about to hand me her pro-sized black golf bag. She paused, looked at me, then at the golf bag, and asked whether she should switch it for a lightweight carry model.
“No,” I told her. “The Tour version is fine. If they expect you to play with tour pros, you should be used to being treated like one.”
I picked up the oversized bag with her name on the back and “Titleist” emblazoned on the side and trundled across a bridge to the 10th tee of Blue Fox Run Golf Club. For the next 90 minutes, I watched her game over nine holes from the most revealing vantage point in the business – as her caddie. I had read about Whaley, and seen her interviewed. I also knew from my PGA Tour caddie days how good those guys really were. It was now time to see first-hand if she had the game to compete with them.
A month before, Whaley, 35, was just another club pro – head golf professional, actually – at this modest but attractive daily-fee layout that straddles the Farmington River, 10 miles west of downtown Hartford. She had played college golf, then played sparingly on the LPGA before settling down to raise a family and build a career on the instruction tee and behind the pro shop counter.
Then the unexpected happened. And she hasn’t had time to look back since.
Whaley has been overwhelmed with e-mail, congratulatory phone calls and requests for interviews since winning the Connecticut Section PGA Championship on Sept. 17. With the victory came an automatic spot in the PGA Tour’s 2003 Greater Hartford Open, an event that is facing elimination if it can’t raise $2.7million to compensate for loss of sponsorship money.
For her part, Whaley is not naive about what she has stumbled into. A woman has never teed it up in a full-fledged PGA Tour event from the same tees as the men. Indeed, in no professional sport in the United States have men and women met on equal terms to compete in a regularly sanctioned event. Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs in 1973 was a staged tennis exhibition. At the Wendy’s Three-Tour Challenge, men and women play from separate tees.
When it comes to claiming one’s place on the golf course, Whaley is not shy about the fact that she – and women – belong. On the matter of Augusta National Golf Club, Whaley has a ready answer.
“Yes, I would love to see Augusta admit women,” she says. “They are, of course, a private country club and as such do not have to admit a female. But whether you agree with Augusta or not, anytime a male or female is excluded based on gender, it is gender bias. It would be nice if we didn’t have to continually fight these battles.”
Whaley earned her way into a PGA Tour event by winning against men, but she did so while playing from a shorter tees. There will, however, be no such provision at the GHO. All entrants will play from the same markers – par-70, 6,890 yards.
Can she compete? Can she avoid embarrassing herself? Critics scoff at her chances. But nowhere does it say that you have to have a chance to win in order to tee it up. In the last 20 years, not one of the Connecticut Section championship qualifiers (all men) have made the cut at the GHO. Jim McMahon, Connecticut Section rules chair (and head professional at Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford), says that his colleagues are proud to be represented by Whaley.
“We’re fortunate to have such a talented individual,” he says.
If she plays, Whaley says, she only will do so if she can establish reasonable goals that are worth achieving.
“It doesn’t have to be winning,” she says. “It could be to make the cut, or shoot a certain number, or hit X-number of greens in regulation.”
She has plans to add strength to her game, presuming she opts to play. Whaley carries her drives 225 yards and winds up in the 235-240 range with roll. She hits her 5-wood 210, and her ideal yardage for 5-iron is 165. Perhaps it’s unfair to conclude too much from nine holes of golf, especially when played on a day with temperatures in the mid-40s, a mild breeze and relatively heavy ground owing to a recent rain. Whaley has a sound, very simple swing, with good rotation. She hits her woods straight, but a high cut creeps in if she’s off form. Her iron play is crisp, with the ball flying a little right to left. It’s not a game that will blow away anyone on the PGA Tour. But it certainly is in line with a good LPGA player.
If the ground is dry, she benefits from roll because she doesn’t get a lot of spin on the ball. Playing against the men on a wet course will prove more problematic. But she figures she always can rely upon the traditional strength, the short game.
That’s what she loves to work on most. As head professional, she plays precious little, and she finds little need to beat balls on the range for hours at a time. Her preferred regimen is a half-hour per day, 30-40 shots, all of them from inside 50 yards.
Whaley, the first woman to play in the PGA Club Pro Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., is a self-described jock who loves to compete. An athlete by nature is accustomed to contending at an intense level, and Whaley is no different. She was a nationally ranked ski racer during her high school years in Syracuse, N.Y., and went to ski competitively at the University of Colorado. During her first year, however, she compressed a vertebrae. That ruined her ski career, so she went back to her other option, golf.
Joe Tesori, golf pro at Drumlins Golf in Syracuse since 1980, has known Whaley for a quarter of century - ever since her parents brought her over for golf lessons at age 9. He says he knew right away “she was a special young girl.” By the time she got to Jamesville-Dewitt High School, Whaley was good enough to play on the boys’ team and to be selected to the all-county team. She initially had turned her back on a golf scholarship offer to the University of North Carolina in favor of skiing at Colorado. But after the accident, she renewed her option, and played on the varsity team from 1985-89. During that time she managed to qualify for the 1986 U.S. Women’s Open at NCR Golf Club (South Course) in Kettering, Ohio, where she missed the cut by four shots. After graduating (on time, with a degree in economics), she tried her hand on the LPGA.
Whaley played the LPGA in 1990 and 1993 as a nonexempt player with limited success - making five cuts in 28 starts, with total career earnings of $2,156. Injuries hampered her, as well as tendency to try to relearn her game to fit it with what she thought she needed. It didn’t help that she would sometimes get too analytical with her swing.
That analytical nature serves her well as a teacher, though. In the mid-1990s, Whaley worked for Nicklaus-Flick Golf Schools while her husband served as director of golf at Ibis Golf and Country Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. When he landed the head job at River Highlands, Suzy settled into an assistant’s job as instructor at Tumble Brook Golf and Country Club in Bloomfield, Conn. Four years later, she landed the head job at Blue Fox Run.
Whaley presides over a daily-fee operation that’s unusually women-friendly. Club owner Lisa Wilson Foley is so intent upon building a base of golfers that she created an on-site day care center so that mothers (and all parents) would have a place to entrust their children while on the course. Whaley, a mom with two girls, Jennifer, 8, and Kelly, 5, is among those who utilize the service. Blue Fox Run also hosts a Futures Tour event. And now it’s home to the first female golf pro to qualify for a PGA Tour event.
Tesori recalls one time when Whaley was hitting the ball perfectly on the practice tee but struggling on the course.
“She said she was thinking about nothing on the practice tee, but had about 86 swing thoughts when competing,” Tesori says. “I told her, ‘there are times when nothing is something,’ ”
That was apparently the case July 30-Aug. 1 at Mid Pines Golf Club in Southern Pines, N.C.. There, in the 2002 Golf for Women Magazine LPGA Teaching and Club Pro Championship, Whaley overwhelmed the field to shoot 7-under 209 and won the $13,000 first-place check by nine shots.
Whaley can play. And she’s not afraid to compete. Among the many lessons she learned while playing the LPGA, Whaley says, “is what it’s like to be the next alternate in line while the last opening is taken up.”
That’s why she’s sensitive to those golfers whose spot she might be taking. On the other hand, she’s quick to reiterate, she qualified and earned the spot and she has every right to assume it.