Whaley family on the road with both daughters in NCAA Regionals
By Jeff Jacobs
HARTFORD, Conn. – Jenn Whaley is more like her mom.
"We're kind of boisterous," Suzy Whaley said Tuesday before boarding a flight for the West Coast and a special week of golf. "We forget how loud we are sometimes."
Kelly Whaley is more like her dad, Bill.
"They are quieter, better listeners probably than we are," Suzy said. "They're genuine, extremely funny, just not quick to jump into a conversation. Jenn and I can talk to a trash can. It works out for our family. It's a perfect balance."
Suzy Whaley loves to use the words "golf" and "lifetime" and "forever" in the same sentence breezily, as if they are always meant to be and never meant to end.
Make no mistake, life's long fairway has taken the Whaley family to incredible places. Suzy, 49, became the first woman in 58 years to qualify for a PGA Tour event at the 2003 Greater Hartford Open. In 2014, she became the first woman elected to national office in PGA of America history as secretary and is on course to become its president in 2018.
And this week? Jenn, a senior captain at Quinnipiac, and Kelly, a freshman at North Carolina, are playing in the NCAA Division I regionals for the first time.
For Jenn, to have joined a fledgling program in Hamden and helped it grow into the MAAC champion, it is especially rewarding. Bill, director of golf for PGA Tour Properties, went to Bryan, Texas, to follow her.
Suzy, a volunteer coach for the Bobcats, traveled to Stanford, where Kelly is playing. The PGA of America is celebrating its centennial. Wednesday was National Instruction Day, and Suzy did a clinic for Golf Channel with David Leadbetter from TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. So it worked out well.
"It was awesome to watch [the NCAA selection show] on Golf Channel, my whole family was in a group message hoping we'd end up in the same region," Jenn said. "Even though we're not, to be in such a big golf arena at the same time is so cool.
"Over the years, we've been such a support system for each other. I know this week we'll talk every night about our rounds. Swing thoughts, mental part of the game or just laugh about a really bad hole."
Jenn likes to joke about what a horrible texter Kelly is. So mom and the girls do FaceTime often.
"If [Kelly's] in the mood, we'll talk for hours," Jenn said. "If she's not, she'll hang up on us immediately because she's bored with us."
Yet there are words little sister said to her a long time ago that stand as some of the most powerful of Jenn Whaley's life.
"It's one of my favorite stories to tell," Jenn said.
So before leaving with the Bobcats for the final golf tournament of her college career, she told it.
"When I was 9, my mom called a local course and asked if I would be ready to play in a youth tournament," Jenn said. "She gave my score for nine holes, mid-50s. They said absolutely we have lots of girls who shoot right around there, we'll play her with a great group and she'll be fine."
Jenn got in the car, excited to meet new people.
"Well, I got paired with two boys and a girl who all shoot around even par and are actually unhappy with the scores," she said. "At the time, I didn't totally know the rules. I'd play 'ready' golf. First hole I was so nervous, I just went up and hit. They all kind of laughed at me. 'You can't go first you need to go last you're the worst.' It was horrible."
When the round and chuckling was over, Jenn got back in the car.
"I was crying. I said there's no way I'm playing this sport again," she said. "It's not fun."
Can you imagine a Whaley hating golf?
"For us it's one of those devastating moments where you say it can't be happening," Suzy said. "You want your kids to be happy. Bill and I didn't care about the tournament side. We just wanted them to play the game for a lifetime. For Jenn to walk away from it was awful.'"
Two years later, Kelly started playing tournaments.
"She has so much natural talent," Jenn said. "She was winning and getting all these really cool trophies. I got kind of jealous. She told me, 'Come play with me. It's so much fun.' So I started playing. Having her as support was amazing. Her confidence helped me to do better. It made it so much easier."
"We thank Kelly every day for that," Suzy said.
The sisters usually talk three times a week, but during Kelly's first semester at North Carolina it was every day. It was big sister's turn to lend an encouraging word.
"Kelly went from a 30-person class in high school to 300 kids in one class," Jenn said. "School, golf, social life can be a huge challenge for a freshman fall semester. I went through the same thing. It's much better for her this semester."
As a volunteer coach for John O'Connor, Suzy has been around for any guidance the Quinnipiac women might want. Strategic support, controlling nerves, any little bit she could contribute. The Bobcats are seeded 18th and last in their regional. Suzy loves they are playing with no fear.
As far as grooming their daughters, Bill and Suzy discovered early on they were better in different roles.
"I'm much harder on them when it comes to training, at the range, with their swing, the time they put in," Suzy said. "It was starting to wear on them. Bill is incredibly patient with them on the range, putting green work, short-game work.
"I was really patient with them on course. Bill was the opposite. It's funny. With our students, we can be patient in both places, but these are our children. So with pin-sheet usage, strategy, to hit what from where, I was more patient on the course. It worked."
How do you know?
"We still love each other," Suzy said.
Jenn was 9 when mom became the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event since Babe Didrikson. Kelly was 6. Their memories are spotty. Mom was national news for months. She handled it with grace. She handled it with as big a smile golf has ever known.
"The girls remember more from the pictures and they look at them often," Suzy said. "As they started playing better golf, seeing where I played from [on the championship tees], they love hearing about it and talking about it. They remember little moments. And they understand why I chose to play."
"I'm a little young to really remember that whole time in her life, but I will tell you that her whole life is so motivating for me," Jenn said. "She's one of four women to have played in a men's tour event. Instead of letting that be the entirety of her career, she went on to be the first female to be elected by the PGA and eventually president. She always wants to be the best she can be not necessarily the first. The fact she is first is a bonus."
After three days of competition, Jenn will return to take finals Monday. She will graduate May 21 in economics with a minor in math. She has a job lined up with Aetna in the three-year financial leadership development program. The business experience will be invaluable.
"I'm starting in insurance and I hope to veer back maybe to sports eventually," she said.
Kelly has a 75.67 average, third on the Tar Heels. She finished 10th in the ACC championship. She's a top young player. She'll compete as an amateur on the Symetra Tour this summer.
"She wants to win every tournament," said Suzy, who also played at Chapel Hill. "If there's pressure on Kelly, it's Kelly on herself. She works really hard on managing it. She has every intention of playing three more years, graduating from college and then we'll see what comes of it."
On Monday what came of it was FaceTime among mom and daughters. Kelly was in the airport with her Carolina teammates.
"She was 100 percent distracted, it was more of a conversation with us and her headset," Suzy said.
"We ended up talking to the whole team, wishing them good luck," Jenn said.
Hey, somebody in the Whaley family has to do the talking and somebody has to do the listening.
This article was written by Jeff Jacobs from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.