Suzy Whaley, the downhill racer who shattered barriers

By Bob Denney
Published on
Suzy Whaley, the downhill racer who shattered barriers

If a kaleidoscope could reflect one’s life, what would that tube of mirrors, colored glass and changing patterns glean from Suzy Whaley?

The PGA/LPGA Professional and Director of Instruction for Suzy Whaley Golf in Farmington, Connecticut, has been challenging and breaking down barriers from the beginning. From a ski racer who couldn’t wait to spring from the starting gate; to the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event in 58 years; to becoming the first woman elected a national officer of the PGA of America – it seems there’s always an unchartered summit beckoning Suzy Whaley.

Before she would test herself in golf, there was the thrill of the hill.

“In ski racing, every next hill, every next steep slope, you weren’t quite sure what will come next. You had to figure it out,” said Whaley. “Ever since I was 3, I loved to go fast. My mom told me I went down a hill near Lake Placid in an ice storm. She tried to catch me and couldn’t.

“I realized that I was going to fall a lot. I loved the adventure and the challenge. You think twice when you’re older. You can’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. You have to go for things and believe in them passionately. You also have to surround yourself with people who support you. I’ve been lucky; I’ve always had that.”

Born Suzy McGuire in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Suzy moved to Syracuse, New York, with her family when she was three years old. Suzy’s mother, Mary Ann, an avid golfer, longed for a playing companion.

Her oldest daughter, Tracy, preferred swimming. One day Mary Ann got a call from an official at the Cavalry Club in Manlius, New York. Suzy, then age nine, was improperly dressed – in a swimsuit – and was hitting balls on the golf range.

Mary Ann arrived at the range and asked her youngest daughter, “Are you sure that this is what you want to do?” Suzy confirmed it was, and acceptable golf attire soon followed.

“My mom never had any barriers for my sister or for me,” said Whaley. “Nothing was too big a challenge if we prepared and worked hard. We were never reprimanded for failing. It was more ‘What are we going to take from it and what are we going to do about it?’"

Suzy’s love for golf expanded, as she became the first girl to compete on the Jamesville-DeWitt High School boys’ team; the first to compete in the Section 3 Championship, and she twice teed it up in the New York State High School Championship.

"I was never told by my parents that I couldn’t because I was a girl,” said Whaley. “I was never told I couldn’t because I didn’t have enough talent. I was never told I couldn’t because someone was smarter than I was. It was just ‘How do we get there?’”

Whaley, 51, is a member of the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame; an honorary director of The First Tee of Connecticut and a member of the Board of Directors of the ANNIKA Foundation. She is among a Jamesville-DeWitt alumni honor roll featuring a Pulitzer Prize winner, NBA and NFL athletes, actors and musicians. She says that she proudly wore the red and white school colors.

“I knew the boys who played on the high school team, and they accepted me,” said Whaley. “We are still friends today. They supported me and stuck up for me. I remember getting off the bus at the State High School championship at Colgate. Dottie Pepper was across the practice green. I thought, well, there’s another girl here and I had to beat her. I didn’t.”

Suzy injured herself skiing in her junior year in high school, and wasn’t about to abandon time on skis. She tried to make the University of Colorado ski racing team. Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina women’s golf coach stayed in touch and asked if she might consider the Lady Tar Heels. She arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and competed the next four years on the golf team before graduating in 1989 with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.

She turned professional that year and earned her LPGA Tour card. She competed on the LPGA Tour in 1990 and 1993, and is a dual member of the PGA and the LPGA Teaching & Club Professionals.

Whaley met her future husband, PGA Professional Bill Whaley, after earning her LPGA card. She was on a golf lesson at Inverrary Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, and Bill happened to have been a coach to one of Suzy’s closest friends.

“I have an incredible husband who looks at me and asks, ‘Really? You want to do this?’ I say, ‘Yes,’ and he then gives his total support. I have been blessed to have had great mentors in my life. From Joe Tesori, Jim Flick, Martin Hall, Renee Powell - their stories alone inspire you. They push you and challenge you. You want to do better and walk in their footsteps.”

Whaley also rewrote PGA Member championship history, and with her mother serving as caddie. Suzy captured the 2002 Connecticut PGA Section Championship and the 2002 LPGA T&CP National Championship.

At the time, the PGA of America allowed women players to compete from distances 10 percent less than men players in qualifying events. By winning her Section title, she earned a berth in the 2003 Greater Hartford Open. Though the controversy swirled, Whaley worked on her conditioning and teed it up with her Tour peers from their tees. She missed the cut on July 27, but earned a measure of respect from many peers and countless strangers. 

Whaley also was the first woman PGA Member to compete in the PGA Professional Championship. She missed the cut in 2002 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, but in 2005 survived a Regional Championship playoff, then made the cut in 2005 national championship at the rugged Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

“It was pouring down rain and blowing like a son of a gun, and we were coming up the back nine,” Whaley recalled of her second round at the Ocean Course. “Nobody was out there. My umbrella was inside out. It was a par-4, and I don’t remember what hole. I hit driver, 3-wood, and I still had a 5-iron in.

“I looked up and who was standing there following me in the pouring, pouring gusting rain – Brian Whitcomb (then PGA Vice President). He was the only person out there cheering me on.

“I will never forget it and my mom never forgot it. It was an amazing moment. I knew that they could be inside and warm, and there he was.”
Fast forward to Nov. 22, 2014, as delegates at the PGA of America’s Annual Meeting in Indianapolis prepared to elect its officers.

As the election proceeded, Whaley sat in back of the ballroom of the JW Marriott with members of her family and friends. Once the tabulations for PGA Secretary were announced electronically, and that Whaley had received 60 of the 114 votes cast on the first ballot, applause began. Everyone in the room - except Whaley – realized what happened.

Whaley’s youngest daughter, Kelly, was seated by her mother. “Mom, you won.”

“No, I didn’t; there’s another round,” insisted Whaley, who was beginning to process that she was the first woman elected PGA Secretary.

“It was truly hard to take in. When I was asked to say a few words, I was speechless,” said Whaley, who in November will become the 41st president of the PGA of America.

The woman who stood at the top of countless hills on skis is now poised for the next rush and navigating a new route before her.

“I am so passionate about playing the game. Along with many others, I want to see more people playing our game,” said Whaley. “I want people from every background to feel that they are welcome. And I want our professionals to have the resources they need to achieve greatness.”

When Whaley assumes the PGA presidency, it will be 40 years since the first woman was elected to PGA Membership. “Forty years! It’s amazing,” she said. “Have we come a long way? No, I wish we could say we’ve come farther. Are we striving to go far and faster? Absolutely, and we are committed to achieving more.”

Whaley is excited about what she sees in the game of golf and believes “our culture is evolving and exciting.” She embraces the PGA of America collaborating with the LPGA to form the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in 2015.

“That’s personal for me. I’m a woman, after all,” she said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to showcase women in the game. I’m excited that the PGA is involved in that. I’m also excited about what we have done in many programs that include PGA Works, PGA Lead, PGA HOPE, and PGA Junior League. That’s not to say that we don’t have challenges.

Whaley’s daughters, Jenn, and Kelly, each followed their mother into golf. Jenn, a former four-year golfer at Quinnipiac University, is now working for AETNA insurance. Kelly is a junior member of the University of North Carolina golf team and like her mom, is making an impact. She set an all-time Tar Heel record of 12-under-par at Briars Creek Golf Club on St. Johns Island.

It was Jenn, then an eight-year-old, who provided a calmness two months before her mother would be scrutinized by the golf world for her appearance in the 2003 Greater Hartford Open.

Jenn penned a Mother’s Day poem:

“You help me with my homework, you drive me to school
You put me to bed; you love me.
You’re going to be the first woman to play in the GHO
And you’re my role model.”

“It wasn’t about winning a golf tournament,” Suzy said. “It was so much more than that.

“You show the world that you take the opportunity and don’t fear stepping outside your comfort zone. You prepare as hard as you can. My daughters know just because you are passionate, work hard, and prepare, it doesn’t always have a great outcome. But they also know to hold their heads high when they leave. We believe that in the Whaley family.”