PGA President Suzy Whaley embraces the historic opportunity to remove barriers and elevate the game for all golfers
Suzy Whaley’s path to the PGA presidency hit a crossroads only minutes after she was introduced to the game at the age of 9. She was swimming with friends at Cavalry Country Club outside Syracuse, New York, when a group of boys decided to get out of the pool and head to the practice range to hit some golf balls – and they invited Suzy to join them.
She soon took her first swings, immediately enjoying the feeling of the golf swing and the sight of the ball climbing into the air. The gifted young athlete – unknowingly breaking the club’s dress code by hitting golf balls in her bathing suit – was quickly noticed by the club’s golf professional, who found Suzy’s mother on the course.
The reaction by Suzy’s mother, the late Mary Ann McGuire, could have either set the stage for a lifelong love of the game, or a permanent retreat to the pool and other sports.
“I remember my mom driving up to the range in a golf car, and I consider it one of the greatest moments of my life,” Whaley recalls. “Instead of yelling at me about the dress code, she smiled and said, ‘Do you like this?” And I said, ‘I love this.’ We went to the shop to get an appropriate golf outfit, and honestly, that was how golf started for me.”
That welcoming moment put Whaley on a path that would lead to countless hours on the range and golf course, an ongoing competitive career that has encompassed college, the LPGATour and a historic appearance on the PGATour, and an accomplished entrepreneurial livelihood as a PGA Professional. A path that led to building a golfing family that includes her husband, PGA Professional Bill Wha- ley, and two daughters who play the game – Jennifer, who is in Aetna’s Financial Leadership Develop- ment Program and is a assistant women’s golf coach at her alma mater, Quinnipiac, and Kelly, a senior on the University of North Carolina’s women’s golf team.
And, of course, a path that she has followed to become the first female PGA President.
“My parents always supported anything I wanted to do in the game with no limits, no barriers and no walls,” says Whaley, 51, who became the 41st PGA President at last month’s PGA Annual Meet- ing in Indian Wells, California. “The journey was mine, but they started me in a direction. It wasn’t about gender. It was about working hard, finding out what you wanted to accomplish, figuring out how to get there, and giving you the support you need.
“As PGA Professionals, that’s the best lesson we can ever give people as they come into the game.”
Whaley is now the fourth woman to lead an allied golf association, joining former USGA Presidents Judy Bell and Diana Murphy, and former LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens. Prior to breaking the glass ceiling by ascending to PGA President, Whaley made history by winning the 2002 Connecticut PGA Professional Championship and becoming the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to qualify for a PGA Tour event. Competing in the 2003 Greater Hartford Open – and in the 2002 and 2005 PGA Professional Championships – proved to be a validation of the “no limits” mindset her parents instilled in her, and inspired a generation of golfers.
“Suzy has been an inspiration to many female PGA Members like myself,” says Emily Brown, a PGA Certified Professional at Indian Hill Club and University Club in Chicago and a member of the 2018-19 PGA LEAD class. “I remember when she made the cut at the PGA Professional Championship at Kiawah Island as the only woman in the field. That was a motivator for me to continue toward my PGA requirements at Methodist University. Suzy has paved the way for me and many other women in the business.”
Now a PGA Master Professional with years of experience at the highest levels of PGA governance, Whaley blends her enthusiasm and excitement for the game with a determination to help elevate her fellow PGA Members. This combination of passion and progressive pragmatism strikes an important balance as the PGA of America moves into a new era of leadership.
“Suzy has an enormous passion for the game and for the PGA, but also an energy around protecting the essence of what makes PGA Professionals special and the great traditions of the game,” says PGA CEO Seth Waugh, who worked closely with Whaley as an Independent Director on the national PGA Board before becoming the Association’s fourth-ever CEO in September. “She has a huge sort of energy that she channels into making the lives of 29,000 PGA Professionals better in multiple ways, and evolving the game so it will be even more relevant for our kids’ kids than it has been for us in our lives. She’s a genuine leader.”
In leading the PGA for the next two years, Whaley will draw upon the lessons learned from a lifetime of competing, learning and teaching. From her multisport youth growing up in Syracuse and life on and off the LPGA Tour to becoming a PGA Professional, Whaley’s path has prepared her for the PGA Presidency in many ways.
Getting Started in Syracuse
Suzy McGuire Whaley was born Nov. 10, 1966, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She was the second child of Mary Ann and Mick McGuire, following her sister, Tracy, into the family. The McGuires moved to Syracuse when Suzy was 4, and she’s always considered the area her home.
Growing up near all four of her grandparents and a great-grandmother, Whaley was always an athlete among athletes. One of her grandfathers played baseball at Notre Dame, while the other had played lacrosse at Harvard. Both McGuire girls played multiple sports, with Tracy becoming an outstanding swimmer.
Whaley’s first love was ski racing, and she also ran cross country and played soccer. Adding golf to the mix gave her a sport for every season, and gave her mother a built-in golfing buddy.
“My mom took up golf late, but she absolutely fell in love with it,” Whaley recalls. “My sister was introduced to golf by my mom, but she didn’t love it then – she does now, thankfully. I took to the game and spent a lot of time on the range and wanted to play with my mom. But times were different then, and young girls didn’t have a lot of opportunities to get on the course.”
Whaley became a self-professed range rat, and quickly learned how to make a $5 basket of balls last most of the day. First came hours of chipping and putting, including contests with her friends and other members. Eventually Whaley would move on to full shots, taking her time on each. The unintended result was learning how to practice with purpose, and the ability to focus on each shot instead of rushing through swings.
After a couple summers wearing out the Cavalry range, the McGuires took Suzy to nearby Drumlins Country Club, a public facility owned by Syracuse University. That’s where Whaley met Joe Tesori, a young PGA Professional who would become an indelible part of her golf journey.
“I knew Mary Ann from area golf events, and she called and asked if I would take a look at Suzy’s golf swing,” says Tesori, a 2017 inductee into the PGA of America Hall of Fame and the 2016 Bill Strausbaugh Award winner. “As a coach, you often see par- ents who have a different agenda than what’s best for their kids. Suzy’s parents were two of the most supportive individuals I ever met. They wanted their daughter to have the proper guidance and accessibility to find her potential, and to have the opportunity to actually play golf on the course.”
Drumlins was completely accessible to all golfers, regardless of gender or age, which was attractive to the McGuires. And once Tesori saw Suzy’s athletic swing and focused demeanor, he knew she had potential.
“Her competitive nature from skiing transferred right over to golf, and she had the grit and determination, too,” Tesori remembers. “We still joke about a day where I was trying to teach her to hit a little cut shot around the green. Suzy must have shanked the first 100 she tried. I had another lesson to teach, but I came back in an hour and she was still there – only now she was hitting soft little flops with a big smile on her face, like ‘Look at this!’ That’s the sort of thing every coach loves to see.”
Ski racing remained Whaley’s main focus, and she spent time at boarding school to train, eventually landing a spot on the U.S. Olympic Development Team with a goal of competing in the Winter Games. Golf was a fun diversion during the short summer season in Syracuse.
Tesori’s tutelage, however, helped Whaley advance quickly in the sport. He hired her to work on the range at Drumlins, though both parties agree more balls were hit than picked – including one instance when legendary Syracuse men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim was left waiting for a bucket of balls while Suzy finished practicing.
In addition to learning the golf swing, Whaley was unknowingly getting a master class in how to be a PGA Professional from Tesori.
“Joe always had time for me – he was 100 percent invested in my love of the game, and I cherish him for that,” she says. “I flash back to Joe’s approach all the time, and it shaped me as a PGA Professional. He was humble, he was determined, he was patient. And he never treated anyone any different from anyone else at the course, regardless of gender, color or skill level.
“Everyone who came to him and wanted to get better at golf, he helped them. That’s what makes a wonderful coach and teacher.”
The McGuires and Tesori worked to find Whaley additional outlets for her seasonal golf as she entered high school. The McGuires joined Onondaga Golf and Country Club when Suzy was 14, thanks to its less-restrictive policies that allowed her to play more often. The club even allowed her to play with older golfers on women’s day, and Whaley carded her first hole-in-one while playing with the group – and, in the excitement, followed it with an 11 on the next hole.
Meanwhile, Whaley joined Jamesville Dewitt High School’s boys golf team, since the school didn’t have a girls team. Alex Donadoni was the squad’s coach, and Suzy’s teammates became like brothers to her as she became a top player, competing twice in the New York State High School Championship – including once against one of the only other girls in the state to play on a boys team, Dottie Pepper.
Whaley also started competing in larger events, including three trips to the Junior PGA Championship and earning a title at the New York Junior Girls’ Championship, and started attracting attention from college golf programs after qualifying to play in the 1986 U.S. Women’s Open while she was still in high school.
Skiing remained her primary focus, however, though an injury suffered in a fall during her junior year of high school put her goal of skiing in the Olympics in doubt. When the time came to choose a college, Whaley decided upon the University of Colorado in hopes of skiing and playing golf. But after a semester, she decided to become a recreational skier and a full-time competitive golfer – and transferred to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to play the game and prepare for law school.
Before she left, Whaley made a lasting mark on Syracuse, and her old high school now has a girls golf team – coached by Tesori.
“The school has a Hall of Fame corridor near the gym, and we start practice there when the weather is still cold outside,” Tesori says. “We always begin by a picture of Suzy, and I tell the girls, ‘This is Suzy McGuire Whaley – she was in your spot 25 years ago, and she went on to play on the LPGA Tour, and even on the PGA Tour, and to become a great teacher.’
“And now I can say, ‘She’s the PGA President. Look at what she did, and think about what you can do. Anything you have a passion for, you can achieve – and here’s the proof.’”
Giving Golf a Shot
Whaley redshirted her first semester at North Carolina, then played the next four years before graduating in 1989 with a bachelor’s degree in economics after a solid collegiate golf career. The plan was still to apply to law school, until her path took another turn toward golf.
She had qualified for a pair of LPGATour events while in college, and played well at the LPGA Championship. Whaley was approached by two sponsors who offered to support her in an attempt to play on tour if she wanted to give it a go.
“I talked to my parents about it, and I think my father’s jaw hit the floor,” she remembers. “My mother, on the other hand, said, ‘Why don’t you give it a shot – you can always go back to law school.’ And just like that, off we went, my mom and me.”
Whaley played well enough to earn conditional status and, with backing from sponsors, set out on the LPGATour as an unexpected adventure. At the end of the season, she had made a handful of cuts, a small amount of money, and a discovery about what it takes to play for a living.
“I realized very quickly that there were a lot of people working a lot harder at it than I was, and they wanted it a lot more,” Whaley says. “I lost my card, went through Q School again, and I didn’t get it back. I wanted to keep playing, so I decided I needed to figure this out.”
She found herself in Fort Lauderdale, talking through possibilities with her sponsors, when she started taking lessons from a young PGA Professional named Bill Whaley, who was the PGA Dire tor of Golf at Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill. The two had originally met through Katie Peterson, Suzy’s roommate at North Carolina.
“Suzy was great to work with as a student because she was a hard worker, and I was able to share my experiences playing internationally and brief stints on the PGATour,” says Bill Whaley, who is now Director of Golf Operations, PGA Tour Golf Course Properties, and was named the 2006 Connecticut PGA Golf Professional of the Year. “It was impressive to see how she connected with people – members at the club, golfers at pro-ams. In a business that’s all about relationships, that really stood out.”
Suzy and Bill clicked on and off the course, and married in 1991.
“It was one of those things where if I hadn’t lost my tour card, I might never have met Bill, and now we’ve been married 27 years,” Whaley says. “I feel like it was meant to happen.”
Whaley continued working on her game while Bill worked at Inverrary, and Suzy made it through Q School and rejoined the LPGA Tour in 1993.
The 1993 season would be her last on tour – but Whaley wasn’t done with golf. Bill had accepted a job as PGA General Manager and Director of Golf of the Club at Ibis in West Palm Beach, Florida. While Whaley had played better in 1993, she was also pregnant with the couple’s first daughter, Jennifer, who was born in 1994. The new family put down roots in Palm Beach County, and Whaley found herself without a job for the first time since before she had started picking the range at Drumlins.
Whaley was thinking about giving teaching a try when opportunity knocked. Legendary instructor Jim Flick, the 1988 PGA Teacher of the Year, had established a Nicklaus Flick Golf School at Ibis with a strong cast of young coaches. Flick saw Suzy interacting with Ibis members on visits to the club and asked Bill if she was interested in doing a little teaching.
“She and Jim made fast friends,” Bill Whaley remembers. “As anybody who knew Jim can attest, he was old school – you pay your dues. Suzy didn’t just start off on the lesson tee. She spent almost a year raking bunkers, watching and teaching the short game.”
That year gave Whaley the chance to observe how Flick and his staff – which included future PGA Teachers of the Year Martin Hall and Mike Malaska, plus Charlie Epps, Laird Small, Dean Reinmuth and Cathy Wood – worked with differ- ent types of players day in and day out.
“It was nine months that I observed before I taught for money, and I was so lucky to have a situation to learn from such a great group of people – I learned so much just from the banter in the lunch- room,” Whaley says. “I loved how they interacted with students, and Jim Flick was the best at it. He taught me quickly that teaching is all about the per- son, not the swing, and that your 100 percent has to be given to them in that moment. It was an amazing lesson to learn.
“Sometimes opportunities step right in front of you, and I’m glad I took that one.”
Whaley became Hall’s protégé on the lesson tee, learning the Englishman’s teaching style and short game wizardry.
“Jim told me he thought Suzy was very talented, and she became my project for a while,” says Hall, the 2008 PGA Teacher of the Year and a longtime Golf Channel fixture. “She did well from the get- go. She was a sponge, and she soaked up everything about instruction. The students all liked her very much, and she really wanted to help people.”
According to Hall, Whaley’s strengths as an instructor have suited her well as a businessperson and a PGA leader.
“She looks at things and thinks, ‘there has to be a better way of doing this,’” Hall says. “Better yet, she listens when people talk to her. She’s not think- ing about what she’s going to say when you’re done talking. That’s a tremendous thing.”
Becoming a full-time teacher also gave Whaley the chance to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an educator. Mary Ann McGuire was a professor of children’s literature at Syracuse University, and she helped shape Suzy as an instructor by sharing information on behavior science and learning styles.
“When I look back at it, it’s clear – my mom was a coach, and that was a huge influence on me,” Whaley says. “To this day I can hear her voice when I’m on the lesson tee, especially if I’m having a tough lesson or struggling to communicate. To her, it was never the student’s fault, and I’m a big believer in that approach. It’s brave of someone to come to you for help, so let them know that you’re their partner.”
Whaley also credits her father Mick with helping shape her approach on the lesson tee. A telecommunications professional, Mick’s influence was his jovial, upbeat personality. “I don’t think my dad’s ever had a bad day,” Whaley says. “If you can be that way on the tee, it rubs off on your students.”
Whaley soon became a regular member of the Nicklaus Flick Golf School team, teaching at Ibis and helping stage golf schools around the country for several years. During that time, the Whaleys welcomed another daughter, Kelly, and Suzy continued laying the foundation for a lifelong career in golf.
Formalizing the transition from aspiring tour player to club professional started with Whaley starting the process of becoming a PGA Member while working at Ibis, just a short distance from PGA of America Headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens. At the time, however, the PGA enforced the regulation requiring members to work at least 40 hours a week, and Whaley’s teaching schedule was still part-time. So she worked to complete her LPGA membership requirements, and earned Class A membership in the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Division in 1996.
During this time, Whaley was watching Bill cycle through the chairs of the South Florida PGA Section, where he served as Section President from 1995–97. It was at the end of Bill’s term that he accepted the position of PGA General Manager at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut, marking a major move for the Whaleys and their young family.
“Once we got settled in Connecticut, I wanted to find a place I could teach a little and work a few days a week,” Whaley says. “I looked in the phone book – remember those? – and picked five clubs in the area, then I drove to each and dropped off my résumé. By the time I got home, all five had left messages on our answering machine saying that they needed women teachers.”
Whaley met with PGA Professional Bob Nelson at Tumble Brook Country Club in Bloomfield, Connecticut, and started teaching and working full-time with PGA Professional Howie Friday, who is now the PGA Director of Golf at the facility and President of the Connecticut PGA Section. Whaley also started her journey toward PGA membership in earnest, completing the Golf Professional Training Program curriculum. She earned Class A PGA membership in 2001.
“I was so thrilled to get that plaque and earn the PGA Badge,” Whaley says. “Seeing what the PGA meant to people in my life like Bill, and Jim Flick, Joe Tesori and so many others, it was an honor to be a part of the PGA.”
The next chapter for Whaley as a PGA Professional was taking the reins for herself at a facility, and that opportunity presented itself in the form of Blue Fox Run Golf Course in Avon, Connecticut. Lisa Wilson Foley, the owner of the public facility, had heard good things about Whaley from Tumble Brook members, and reached out to her about becoming PGA Head Professional at the 36-hole facility.
Watching her husband work 100-hour weeks at TPC River Highlands, and with two small children at home, Whaley wondered if she should take on the challenge.
“Bill and I talked it through, and he certainly knew all that it would entail – and that I had zero experience as a head professional or working at a public facility,” Whaley says. “I knew my learning curve would be steep, but I wanted to do it. And with great support from Bill and from Lisa, I figured it out.”
That meant learning the ins and outs of scheduling local high school practice rounds around lucrative league play, balancing the demands of teaching and running the golf shop, and getting to know what her best customers wanted from their experi- ence at Blue Fox Run. That included learning that there was an older golfer who took it upon himself to arrive at the clubhouse early each morning to make coffee for the staff – something discovered after the clubhouse alarm kept going off at 5:30 each morning.
“I became great friends with the police force, because it was on me to get to the course when the alarm went off,” Whaley remembers fondly. “Every- one was patient with me, and I was probably a disaster for the first 60 days or so. But it turned out that I loved being at a daily fee facility, and I learned so much.”
As it turned out, Whaley’s move to Blue Fox Run would be the catalyst for the next surprising turn along her personal path.
Winning a Place in History
As she settled into the position of PGA Head Professional at Blue Fox Run, Whaley began finding time to play golf more often. She started going out with groups and playing with customers, and the competitive fire from her collegiate and LPGA Tour days was quickly rekindled.
“Lisa encouraged me to practice and play at Blue Fox Run because customers liked my competitive background, and the golfers at the course loved to say, ‘Hey pro, want to join us for a few holes?’” Whaley says. “As it turned out, as I started figuring out how to be a head professional, I started playing really good golf, too.”
Whaley started entering Connecticut PGA Section events, and was playing particularly well when the 2002 Connecticut PGA Championship rolled around. Women were allowed to compete at 90 percent of the yardage played by men.
The winner of the September event earned an automatic exemption into the PGA Tour’s Greater Hartford Open the following July – played at TPC River Highlands, where Bill Whaley was PGA General Manager.
Over the first two rounds at Ellington Ridge Country Club, Suzy shot 68-72 with her mom caddy- ing for her. Earning an exemption into the Greater Hartford Open wasn’t on Whaley’s radar – but winning the event was.
“We had a good first 36 holes, and we knew I was in contention,” Whaley recalls. “Before the round, our tournament chair – Doug Evans, who’s now with the Northeastern New York PGA Section – asked if I would take the exemption if I won, and my mom and I just laughed. All I thought was, ‘Give me a break, I’m just going to go out and play golf.’
“And then I end up winning.”
With a 1-under final round of 71, Whaley became the first woman to win the Connecticut PGA Championship. After signing her scorecard, she was told there was a phone call for her – it was the PGA Tour asking if Whaley planned to accept the exemption into the Greater Hartford Open. She asked for some time to think about it, posed for some photos with the championship trophy, then left with her mom for the next appointment on her schedule: Kindergarten orientation night for her youngest daughter, Kelly.
“I didn’t even have time to change – I went to school in the same outfit I wore on course to win the tournament,” Suzy remembers. “When I got home, I had a nice night with Bill and the girls to celebrate winning a tournament and making a check, and that was that.
“The next morning, my world blew up.”
It started with a call from a local radio station at 6:30 a.m. that turned into an interview about whether Whaley would tee it up in a PGA Tour event. The rest of the day was filled with phone calls from newspapers, golf magazines and even non-golf outlets – Suzy was sure she was being pranked when a caller identified himself as a reporter for People magazine, but he turned out to be the real deal.
At this point, Whaley began deliberating the pros and cons of accepting the exemption. On the one hand, it was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to challenge herself and raise the pro- file of women golf professionals at the highest level of competitive golf. With Annika Sörenstam dominating the LPGA Tour, a number of PGA Tour events were considering extending an invitation for the Swedish star to play against the men after Whaley’s victory earned her an exemption into the Greater Hartford Open. Whaley had the same opportunity, only she had earned an exemption by winning an event instead of getting an invitation.
On the other hand, what would happen if Whaley took the exemption and played poorly? Would that reflect badly on the PGA of America, which had provided the opportunity? And what about the naysayers who didn’t think she deserved to earn the exemption since she’d played from a different set of tees than the rest of the competitors – a situation the PGA avoided from ever happening again with a local Rule stipulating that an exemption couldn’t be earned unless the competitor chose to play from the maximum yardage being used at the event for PGA Section and national events.
Above it all, Whaley knew how challenging TPC River Highlands could be, and the caliber of golf played by PGA Tour professionals. Could she find the time, as a full-time working PGA Professional and mother of two young daughters, to train and practice appropriately?
“I couldn’t just make a quick decision. I had to talk with my family, my peers, the PGA – at the heart of it, I’m a competitor, and I wanted to make sure I could play well,” she says.
In the end, it was Jenn Whaley who helped her mom make the decision. The two were reading a children’s book one night that featured a character who was scared to step outside her comfort zone. Jenn asked Suzy if that was why she didn’t want to play in the Greater Hartford Open.
“We had a great conversation about the topic, and I told Jenn, ‘That’s why I am going to play,’” Whaley says. “The next morning, I called the PGA Tour and told them I was in.”
That was the start of a whirlwind six months of preparation for Whaley to make her historic appearance at the Greater Hartford Open. Friends and family pitched in with child care and support as Whaley added three hours of fitness training to her daily schedule in an attempt to add distance to play TPC River Highlands as a par 70 at 6,950 yards. The PGA’s Jamie Carbone became Suzy’s de facto PR representative, coordinating interviews and appearances in the runup to the event while both PGA Professionals continued their busy day jobs.
Along the way there were interesting events happening around Whaley’s march to the PGA Tour. Annika accepted an invitation to play at the Colonial, in late May, less than two months before the Greater Hartford Open. It was front-page news as the dominant golfer on the LPGA Tour missed the cut after solid rounds of 71-74, with the consensus agreeing that the appearance was good for the game. Annika and Suzy were also made part of the conversation about women and their access to private clubs initiated by Martha Burke, the activist who protested outside Augusta National Golf Club prior to the Masters Tournament in April. “Women’s rights in general were part of the conversation, and it was a dialogue that got con- tentious at some points in time,” Whaley says. “To me, the whole thing was about just a couple of goals: First, I wanted to show my daughters to not be afraid to take the opportunities that come to you; and second, I wanted to represent women’s golf in a way that was compelling and made people want
to get out on the golf course. I feel like I accomplished that.
“It was challenging and difficult, but I can’t imagine if I had said no.”
The week of the 2003 Greater Hartford Open was a flurry of activity for Whaley and her family, but she remembers all of it clearly. That includes getting a chipping lesson and playing nine holes of a practice round with Peter Jacobsen, playing in a celebrity pro-am with baseball and football legend Bo Jackson, and using her friend Michelle McGann’s father, Bucky, as her caddie at TPC River High- lands.
Whaley was paired with PGA Tour regulars Anthony Painter and Akio Sadakata for the first two rounds, and both tried to put her at ease as they went to the first tee. As Whaley was visualizing her opening tee shot, Painter played first – and pulled his drive out of bounds. Whaley stepped up, put the ball in play, and off they went.
“I was nervous on the first tee, but I was fearful on the first green,” Suzy says. She’d chipped to three feet below the hole to give herself a par putt, but blew the attempt five feet past the hole and then missed the comebacker. Her tap-in for double bogey looked like a 30-footer, but she immediately relaxed after the ball found the bottom of the cup.
“I was so happy and let loose with the biggest smile,” Whaley says. “The first thing someone asked me after the round was how I could have looked like Cinderella after making double from three feet. My answer was, ‘Because I thought I was going to make a 10, and I didn’t.’”
Thanks to a birdie putt on 18, Whaley carded a first-round 75 in tough, windy conditions – she considers it the best round of tournament golf she’s ever played, and it was eight shots better than the score carded that day by David Duval, the 2001 Open Champion. Her effort earned her the respect of other players in the field.
“I thought her round was way better than mine,” said Jay Haas, who shot a first-round 63 in calm morning weather. “I can’t say enough about that 75. I think it was terrific.”
“I played nine holes with her on Tuesday, and I’m very impressed with her game,” said Jacobsen, who would go on to win the event at age 49 for his final PGA Tour title. “But I’m more impressed with her attitude and her personality. She’s a great person and I love watching her play – she’s a great representative of golf.”
Whaley posted a 78 in the second round to miss the cut, making another birdie and earning pars on both of the course’s long par-5s. The result was anything but disappointing. In front of 500 media members – 150 more than normal for the event – Whaley had represented herself and the PGA with grace and enthusiasm. Thousands of gallery mem- bers wore “Fore Suzy!” buttons, and her entire family was on hand to watch her play.
The following week, Whaley went back to work at Blue Fox Run and contemplated what the future would hold.
“There was a sheer sense of relief, and I was happy to go back to work and ‘real life,’” she recalls. “I had a new appreciation for how golf could make a difference and inspire people. I saw that I could be a leader and help others succeed, and that I had a platform to work with the PGA to bring more women into the game.”
The ensuing years found Whaley embracing new opportunities, such as working as an on-course commentator for LPGA Tour events on ESPN while playing a limited number of events on the tour through sponsors’ exemptions. The travel made it difficult to put in a full schedule at Blue Fox Run, so Whaley stepped away from her head professional duties and created Suzy Whaley Golf, a teaching business based at TPC River Highlands that offered private and group golf instruction and golf schools, drawing upon her experiences with the Nicklaus Flick Golf Schools.
Over time, Suzy Whaley Golf grew to employ as many as 10 PGA Professionals at a time, and expanded to corporate events and a junior program with 500-plus youth golfers. Whaley also continued playing in Section and national PGA events, winning the 2004 Connecticut PGA Professional Championship and playing in the 2002 and 2005 PGA Professional Championships – making the cut in blustery conditions at the 2005 event at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course with her mom as a caddy. Suzy remains a competitive player to this day, having qualified for the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open this year, and has added PGA Director of Instruction at the Country Club at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to her long list of titles.
Gravitating Toward Governance
Another after-effect of playing in a PGATour event for Whaley was a dramatically raised profile among her fellow PGA Professionals. She earned Con- necticut PGA Teacher of the Year honors in 2004 and 2007 and found herself becoming a leader within the Section.
“I’ve watched Bill be very involved in Section governance, and it was a great experience for him,” Whaley says. “I went to the Connecticut PGA office one day and said, ‘OK, where can I help?’”
There was an opening on the Communications Committee, which suited Whaley and her ESPN broadcasting background. That led to a spot on the Marketing and Sponsors Committee, working to raise money for the Section, then it was on to the Junior Golf Committee and an at-large Vice President position. Whaley served on the Connecticut PGA Board of Directors from 2005-07.
“She was always prepared and laser-focused on what her responsibility was and the task at hand,” says PGA Professional Tom Hantke, the Executive Director of the Connecticut PGA Section. “Those were the early years of Suzy’s leadership. I was alongside in a passenger seat to see how committed Suzy was, how prepared she was, and how truly obligated she felt about giving and serving.”
In 2010, the District 1 Director position was rotating to Connecticut, and Hantke suggested that Whaley consider running for the position on the national board. She won the election, and served on the board from 2011–13.
“It was an amazing growth experience for me, meeting PGA Professionals from different parts of the country who do the same sorts of jobs under very different circumstances,” Whaley says. “It was so beneficial to see what one Section needs for its members vs. another Section, and how to make sure they each have the tools to help their members succeed.”
The experience also gave Whaley valuable time with Independent Directors such as Junior Bridge- man, Asuka Nakahara, Chris Liedel and Seth Waugh, successful businesspeople from outside the world of golf.
“In working with Suzy on the PGA Board, you could see how she watched and learned,” says Waugh. “As she got comfortable, she was able to assert herself in a very genuine and thoughtful way. She’s a great collaborator, and she’s able to articulate her views with passion.”
In 2012, Whaley was on the PGA Board when PGA Professional Sue Fiscoe became the first woman to run for PGA of America office. Whaley was inspired by Fiscoe’s campaign.
“I was so impressed with Sue, who was so brave – any time you’re the first person to try something, that takes guts,” Whaley says. “It’s not easy to run, and hat’s off to anybody who puts themselves in that space. There’s always a winner and a loser, and I was upset when Sue lost, but I knew watching her that it could happen. And sometimes, seeing someone else try is all it takes to plant the seed.”
That was the genesis of Whaley’s campaign for PGA Secretary in 2014. She assembled a group of PGA Professionals from around the country to help her campaign, including mentors like Renee Powell and Joe Tesori, and peers like Le Ann Finger, Donnie Lyons, Gary Reynolds, Mike Ahrnsbrak and Gil Gusweiler.
After months of coast-to-coast campaigning, Whaley won the nomination for PGA Secretary at the 2014 PGA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis.
The vote was decided on the first ballot, making Whaley the first female officer in PGA of America history, and putting her eventual ascension to Vice President and President squarely in her path.
“It didn’t register for several moments after the vote, and then I was speechless, which happens very rarely,” Whaley recalls. “For your Association to honor you with the privilege of representing them … I still don’t know how you put that into words, other than to say it is an incredible honor.”
PGA Past President Derek Sprague worked closely with Whaley while she was on the Board of Directors and during her time as PGA Secretary and Vice President – two-year terms when Sprague was serving as President and Honorary President, respectively. He saw Whaley take a full leadership role from the start, and is eager to see what comes from her two years a PGA President.
“Suzy was excellent on the Board, and as Secretary and Vice President – and she’s going to be a wonderful President of the PGA of America,” says Sprague, the PGA General Manager of TPC Saw- grass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. “She listens well, gets both sides of a story and isn’t afraid of taking an opposing viewpoint if there’s a better way to go. She’s been at the table through some challenging situations, and she’s done a great job every step of the way.”
Sprague’s assessment is echoed by PGA Vice President Jim Richerson, who has worked side by side with Whaley over the past two years.
“She has a wonderful mind for business – she developed her own brand in Suzy Whaley Golf, and to bring that kind of experience and thinking to the boardroom is very unique,” says Richerson, the PGA Senior Vice President of Business Development for Troon. “It’s a historic moment for the Association, and it’s going to be amazing having a front row seat to some of the things that we’re going to do with her as President.”
Whaley is proud of her work with the PGA Board and executive staff over her first four years as an officer. She’s especially proud of their work to continue implementing elements of the Association’s Long-Term Strategic Plan, pointing to improvements in Career Services and employment advances, adding the Teaching & Coaching and Executive Management tracks to PGA Education and making great strides with PGA REACH initiatives such as PGA HOPE, PGA WORKS and youth golf programs like PGA Jr. League and Drive, Chip & Putt.
“To be able to work closely with Derek Sprague, Paul Levy and Jim Richerson as officers and with the PGA Board of Directors, our entire executive team and our entire dedicated staff at PGA Headquarters, it’s inspiring to look at what we’ve accomplished in four years,” Whaley says. “We offer feedback to each other that allows the best decision-making process as possible.”
As PGA President, Whaley is excited about the rollout of the new approach to coaching in player development and continuing to ensure that every strategy the PGA pursues has tangible member benefits attached. She’s also enthusiastic about the experience and business expertise new CEO Seth Waugh brings to the Association.
“Having worked on the PGA Board with Seth, I know firsthand that he’s going to help us continue the trajectory we’re on in making a difference in the game and for our members,” Whaley says. “His résumé speaks for itself, but equally important is his passion for the game and for PGA Professionals, and I look forward to working with him in making a difference in our members’ lives.”
The historical significance of Whaley being the first female PGA President has focused the attention of the golf and business world on the Association, which Waugh says is an enormous benefit for the PGA.
“I can’t imagine a better representative of the PGA than Suzy Whaley, and that has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a woman,” Waugh says.
“She’s a great voice for PGA Professionals, and she has the talent and respect that shows how prepared she is to be PGA President. I think this sends a great message to the business of golf – and to the world – that the PGA can set an example for women in leadership positions.”
Whaley embraces the attention that comes with being the first woman to serve as PGA President. She believes it offers an excellent opportunity to bring more people into the game and inspire other women in their PGA journeys – just as she was inspired along the way.
“I’m honored, humbled and so respectful of the historic nature of being the first female PGA President, and it’s all because of the people who came before me to make it possible,” Whaley says. “There are so many women who made incredible strides, like Renee Powell, who stepped outside her comfort zone to make the path easier for women like me to follow her. People like Mary Bea Porter, Sue Fiscoe, Alice Dye, Leslie Greis all set great examples.
“And I’m proud to have had the support of so many PGA Professionals, and to have earned the respect of so many of my peers in a largely male organization. I am excited to be a part of a team that strives to leave the game better than we found it and enhances the careers and livelihoods of our members.”
Thanks to Suzy Whaley, the paths of many other female golfers may lead to loftier places as the game and business of golf move forward.
“I want to come to the day where no one says, ‘Wow, it’s great that you’re a female golf professional.’ Instead, I’d love for them just to say, ‘Wow, it’s great that you’re a PGA Professional,’” Whaley says. “Together, I know we will do great things to enhance our members’ lives, and to help the sport continue to evolve in a way that benefits everyone involved.”