For Suzy Whaley, the weeks preceding the 2003 Greater Hartford Open weren’t as blissful as they might have been for any male New England PGA pro who qualified for the PGA Tour stop.
The ultimate prize for the men was an honor for Whaley, too, but one fraught with stress.
Stepping up to the first tee meant entering a man’s world, making Whaley just the third woman in history to compete in a Tour event.
How well she fared would reflect upon not only her, but the PGA of America and elite female golfers. Whaley agonized about participating until she had a chat one night with her daughter Jennifer, then 9. Whaley always had preached “seize opportunities and not be afraid,” a principle she learned through Title IX – the legislation that paved Whaley’s road with a golf scholarship to the University of North Carolina.
But that evening, Jennifer turned the tables. “So, why wouldn’t you play?” Right then, Whaley went all in. “I realized the impact I could have,” she says. “I wanted to show people that I’m going to prepare the best that I can, and no matter the result, be proud that I took it head on.”
When she competed at the GHO, Whaley affirmed all that Title IX was meant to do: give women equal access to college so they could pursue their dreams. More importantly, she revealed Title IX’s legacy: enduring inspiration.
The law continues to produce waves of champions on and off the field, everyday role models who redefine what women can be and accomplish. It has transformed the American workforce, sparked an active-lifestyle revolution and filled school fields everywhere with girls’ teams. It even has changed how men – whether they admit it or not – treat women.
“It is not possible to overdramatize the impact Title IX has had on society,” says Mary Jo Kane, a University of Minnesota professor and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. “This country has always had females involved in sports. One generation would produce a Babe Zaharias, another would produce a Billie Jean King. But they were all outliers. What Title IX has done is create a critical mass of women playing at all levels of competitive sports.
“When I was a little girl, people didn’t even ask, ‘Should girls play sports?’ but rather, ‘Could they?’ Title IX has taken those questions off the radar forever.”
They’ve been replaced with admiration for women who’ve done no less than define U.S. sports: Joan Benoit Samuelson winning the first women’s Olympic marathon, in 1984. Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain stirring 90,000 soccer fans into a victorious frenzy at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Brittney Griner leading Baylor this spring to a 40-0 season, an unprecedented feat in women’s or men’s NCAA basketball.
“I think what’s remarkable now is, we see athletic accomplishment and celebrate it, regardless of gender,” says Cindy Davis, Nike Golf’s president. “And go ask dads who have daughters . . . they’re the most passionate advocates.”
But Davis says what’s often overlooked is the thousands of Title IX beneficiaries who don’t become star athletes. Empowered by their athletic experiences in college, they’ve put their leadership and teamwork skills to good use. Davis should know: A talented scholarship golfer at Furman University in South Carolina, she opted for a business career that now has her in a corner office.
“You learn to be accountable for your performance,” she says.
Donna Orender goes one step further, saying Title IX elevated the American workforce.
“Fifty percent of the workforce had not been exposed to all of these benefits,” says the former All-American basketball star at Queens College in New York who also has served as a PGA Tour senior executive and then as WNBA commissioner. “We’ve witnessed a total cultural shift that’s produced better employees.”
Now a PGA of America consultant charged with increasing women’s participation in golf, Orender says Title IX has established a platform from which women can enter the game. For decades, many course operators dismissed women, saying they’re not interested in golf or don’t want to embarrass themselves playing with men.
A new generation of empowered women, however, stands to shatter such stereotypes, Orender says. There’s a precedent to support her case: the explosion in popularity of women’s long-distance running.
Though the barriers to entry for golf outnumber those in running, there are parallels between the two sports. Running didn’t always embrace women, either: Boston Marathon officials tried to yank pioneer Kathrine Switzer off the course in 1967 because women were prohibited from competing.
Compare that with the legions of women today who have made the 13.1-mile half-marathon the nation’s fastest- growing running event in terms of participation, according to Running USA. More remarkable, females accounted for 59 percent of half-marathon competitors in 2011.
“When you think about it, (1967) wasn’t that long ago,” Orender says. “It’s just a blink of an eye.”
What we see when we open them again may amaze us even more.