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Taking the Opportunity
Pro golfer Suzy Whaley has taught her daughters to be brave and to take chances. As she runs for PGA secretary, Whaley teaches women across the country to do the same.
Suzy Whaley was reading her daughter Jenn a story before bed. It was an evening routine for her and her husband Bill when their children were growing up; it was just another night. The story on this night was rich with lessons of taking opportunities.
This was December of 2002, and Suzy was sitting on an opportunity of her own. With a first place finish at the Connecticut Section PGA Championship, she became the first woman in 58 years to qualify for a men’s PGA Tour event.
But she still hadn’t said yes to playing.
As Jenn, now a sophomore at Quinnipiac, listened to her mom talk about taking the chances you are given, she did as children often do and asked the obvious question.
“Well Mom, then why aren’t you playing?”
That night, Suzy walked downstairs and told Bill she made up her mind. She was in. She was going to shock the golf world.
Carpe Diem. Take a chance. Seize every opportunity. These are the mantras by which Suzy lives.
Pass on law school to go to PGA Tour school? She did. Play in a men’s tour event? She has. Run for PGA secretary? She is.
Suzy’s long history of and passion for golf brings her to another opportunity to leave her footprint. If she wins the election, she will be the first female elected official in PGA history. Candidates can only run for secretary; it’s the entryway position. From there, the winner rotates into the role of vice president and eventually president to complete the term.
Instead of competing on the green, Suzy is competing on the ground, traveling across the country to talk to the different sections. The logistics of this competition may be entirely different – political vs. athleticism – but Suzy said she and her opponents, Michael Haywood and Russ Libby, are treating it like any other round.
“Strategically, we all look at it kind of like a competition. To be honest, kind of like an on-course competition,” Suzy said. “I look at it the same as I looked at preparing [for the Greater Hartford Open.]”
Even though Suzy is familiar with the challenges, she is facing a third opponent in November’s election that Haywood and Libby don’t have to worry about: 98 years of male-dominated history.
Suzy is not the first woman to get her name on the ballot. Just two years ago during the last PGA elections, Sue Fiscoe ran for secretary. Though she did not win, Suzy said that if her friend and colleague had not found the courage to run, she might not have either.
Though Sue took the step to let the PGA know it was ready to be represented by a woman, Jenn said she still sees and feels the hesitancies that have and will try her mother as elections near.
“She’s facing now the fact that there are so many men in the business that don’t think a woman should be able to run the golf industry,” Jenn said. “Even now, from 2003 when she played to now, she’s still facing the same challenges.”
Even though Suzy recognizes this too, that things are a harder for a woman in her position, she does not want her gender to be the
reason for her successes. It is the same when she qualified for the PGA Tour as it is if she wins PGA Secretary. Suzy wants to be the best, man or woman, because she is the most qualified, a mindset she has had for a while.
“I just always grew up knowing I wanted to do the best I could do,” Suzy said. “It didn’t matter who I was competing against.”
These moments are and were huge for women in sports, not just in the United States. Suzy Whaley was a figure for women around the world, receiving calls from China, France, Australia, Korea and Japan in the time after her qualifying round.
While the phone rang at all hours of the day and mail poured in from around the globe, Jenn and her younger sister Kelly were still too young to grasp the magnitude of their mother’s impact.
A few years before the qualifying for the GHO, Suzy made an appearance on the Golf Channel. First-grade Jenn passed out slips of paper to her classmates letting them know her mother would be on TV – a feat worthy of playground bragging rights.
But it wasn’t too long before Suzy made countless television and radio appearances, interviewed with magazines and newspapers. She went to them, and the cameras would even come to her, swarming the house for around 3,500 interviews in total. It became the norm for the Whaleys.
While Kelly said she remembers her mother taking some swings at the Greater Hartford Open, it is the cameras that both recall.
Now having experienced their own moments on the course where people questioned their skill, Jenn and Kelly get it. They get it more now than they did 12 years ago. It was more than their mother talking to People Magazine.
“It’s more fun looking back now because we can appreciate it more and appreciate what she did and the fact that she did qualify in the first place and all the preparation she did to play,” Jenn said. “We get to hear more stories now from it. There were so many people out there that didn’t condone what she was doing and would send her nasty mail and things like that and how she had to overcome all that diversity and everything and still played incredibly well.”
This ability to overcome obstacles set forth by a male dominated world is what made her such a dynamic idol in 2003 and after. Even more so is her perspective, that being a woman is not a disadvantage but an advantage. It was a moment when such thoughts were unfathomable. There was a wall, but she created a chance.
“I had the opportunity because of it, quite honestly, to excel, but you can look at it one of two ways. I could have looked at it as ‘I’m not going to be able to succeed’ or you could look at it as a huge opportunity.”
Suzy passed on this attitude to her children. The naysayers may try to kill their focus in what is a heavily mental game, but if nothing else, Jenn and Kelly know now that there is one way to get them to stop talking: performing well.
“I think the best way to deal with it is to not say anything and just hit because the best thing in the world, I think any girl golfer will agree, is standing on the range and having five old men behind you glaring at you and you smacking one down the middle,” Jenn said.
And that’s just what the Whaley women are doing in the golf world; they are hitting them down the middle and silencing any doubt.
The Whaley family is scattered up and down the East Coast, but one thing that holds them all together and shortens the distance is golf.
Jenn stays in Hamden. Kelly attends a golf academy in South Carolina. Suzy and Bill live in Farmington when they aren’t traveling for business.
From the start, it’s been a family affair. Golf weaved itself in and out of Suzy’s world through her role models, including her mother, her caddy during the Greater Hartford Open. Her father didn’t play, but her mother loved the game so much that the day she found Suzy hitting on the range with neighborhood boys, she immediately jumped on the chance to help her daughter fall in love with the game.
“The next day I think I had gloves because she wanted a pal,” Suzy said. “I loved it from the beginning.”
That’s something that Suzy and Bill were able to pass on to their own daughters: a love for the game. Jenn serves as a captain in just her second year as a Bobcat, and Kelly will be heading off to Suzy’s alma mater after graduation in 2016, committing to University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
The Whaleys grew and continue to grow on the green. Their house in Farmington, Conn. commemorates a life through golf – books scattered around the house, pictures of Jenn and Kelly using clubs almost as tall as they are and an indoor putting green in the basement.
Though the sport is everywhere you turn in the Whaley house, the choice was up to Jenn and Kelly whether or not they wanted it in their own lives. The moment Suzy realized this sticks with her. Despite qualifying for the U.S. Open, PGA Events, LPGA Events, seeing her kids carry their own bags down the fairway is her favorite golf moment.
“I cried,” Suzy said. “I cried not because I thought they would be collegiate golfers or I ever thought they would go on tour. I just had given them something that had given me so much in my world and in my life, professionally and personally, and they were doing it and they had it now for their life. For me that meant the world.”
And it became an avenue to teach them life’s big lessons. Taking chances, perseverance, the importance of never giving up.
“She used to always say to us that wherever you hit the ball, you have to go hit it. You have to go find it. You have to hit the next shot,” Jenn said. “There’s no point in getting upset about it.
“You have five steps where you can be upset, then it needs to go away. You need to go hit your next shot and she also always told us that no matter if you’re shooting a 200, there’s no reason you should ever quit … I think that alone has helped us in life.”
Lucky for Suzy, her family gets it. Her husband knows the demands of the professional golf world. Her daughters understand the surprised look people give when they realize a woman is hitting in front of them on the course. Her friends understand that this is a dream that is still breathing, still very much alive.
She and her support system did it once through the months leading up to the Greater Hartford Open, and though Suzy said the run for secretary is harder, the potential reward outweighs the challenges.
“There are times where I think ‘Gosh, do I really want to be doing this? This is really hard,’” Suzy said. “Then a little voice goes, ‘Yeah, get up and finish up the hour of work you need to finish because it’s worth it.’ It’s about having some real mistakes in my world and real failures and knowing that that’s OK. I’m still here and I’m going to do better next time.”
Despite the added difficulty, the first go round at history prepared Suzy. The lessons she learned in 2003 are just as applicable in 2014. The house and the car may have added mess and chaos, but that’s a part of going after a dream.
“I just think you have to be very aware that you can have it all, but you can have it all at a price and there are some sacrifices that you’re going to have to make,” Suzy said. “If you choose and have those people around you, it’s so worth it.”
Though Jenn and Kelly are no longer young enough to listen to bedtime stories every night, all three Whaley women are living the moral of the children’s book that was the catalyst to Suzy’s decision more than a decade ago.
It doesn’t matter who is watching or who is talking. They just put the ball on the tee and take a swing, knowing full well that they can do more than just keep up. They can lead.
This, they got from their mother’s example.