One golf tournament changed Suzy Whaley’s career path — not to mention a life in which she would become a trailblazer in the game — and she didn’t even make the 36-hole cut.
It was the 1989 McDonald’s Championship at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington. Whaley, known then as Suzy McGuire, a recent North Carolina graduate who intended to go to law school, qualified for the LPGA event and played well, but fell one shot short of qualifying for the weekend.
However, she so impressed two local businessmen that they offered to support her financially if she wanted to pursue a career on the LPGA Tour. She returned with her parents to their West Chester home and discussed the proposal.
“I told them that I was thinking about going to tour school and not law school,” recalled Whaley, the first woman to serve as president of the PGA of America, “and my parents thankfully said, ‘Hey, you can always go to law school. Why don’t you give it a try?’
“So with my mom in tow, off we went, and made it through first stage in Venice, Fla., and then got my conditional card in Sweetwater, Texas. I got in the car, looked at my mom and said, ‘What do we do now?’ She said, ‘I guess we go practice.’ ”
Whaley played full time on the LPGA Tour for just two years, 1990 and 1993, but her career flourished as a club professional in Connecticut. She made history when she won the 2003 Connecticut Section PGA championship, which earned her a berth in a PGA Tour event, the Greater Hartford Open.
She was the first woman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945 to qualify for a Tour event. She became the second woman to compete on Tour in 2003, joining Annika Sorenstam, who played in the Colonial tournament in Fort Worth, Texas, on a sponsor’s exemption.
Whaley’s involvement in growing the game and providing opportunities for young players, especially girls, to participate moved her into a more active role with the PGA of America. The process reached its peak last November when she was elected president of the organization, which represents 29,000 club professionals.
This week, Whaley will oversee the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park’s Black course on Long Island.
She acknowledges that, yes, it was a good decision to choose golf over law school.
“I’m so blessed and thankful because the opportunities this game has given me are far more than I could ever give back to it,” Whaley, 52, said last week in a phone interview from her home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where she is director of instruction at the Country Club of Mirasol.
“I met my husband through the game, 28 years we’ve been married. I have two beautiful children; both went to college on Division I full scholarships because of the game of golf. I have so many friends, I have my business, I have my career, I have my joy and my passion because of the game. What a great decision that was. You never know until years later, but I’m so thankful that I took a right turn instead of a left.”
Whaley grew up in Dewitt, N.Y., outside of Syracuse. Her parents, Mary Ann and Mick McGuire, moved to West Chester shortly after she graduated from high school and the family played golf at Radley Run Country Club. Whaley learned the game from her mother, a professor at Syracuse University who would caddie for her daughter in many tournaments.
“I loved playing golf and spending time with my mom,” she said. “Her best handicap was about a 16, but she was an avid golfer and had a wonderful eye for the game. She could really help me. She studied the game and watched golf on television all the time.”
There was one part of the game, however, that bothered her a little bit.
“I wanted to get out on the golf course as much as I could, but that was a time when girls really weren’t invited to play the game,” Whaley said. “It was a struggle for my mom to get me access and to explain to me why the boys could play when I couldn’t play. Most places, I couldn’t play but on Mondays.”
Since becoming a club professional, Whaley has been in the forefront of creating more playing opportunities for girls and women. She proudly notes that National Golf Foundation data released last month showed the No. 1 demographic in the game’s growth is girls.
She credits in large part the PGA Junior League, which is in its seventh year and counts Alex Morgan, Rickie Fowler and Stephen Curry among its “ambassadors,” and is team golf with boys and girls playing together as two-person teams in a scramble format.
“It’s unbelievable how fast these boys and girls take to the game,” she said. “Eighty percent of those who sign up are listed by their parents as developmental players. It’s really exciting that we’re having young boys and girls who may play three or four other sports now learning the game as well.”
The creation in 2015 of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which comes next year to Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, has generated clinics across the country for women who play or want to learn the game.
“We want them to come out, have some instruction, get some on-course opportunities, network, be a part of their community, and meet new women within their community that they can engage with on the golf course,” she said.
Life remains busy for Whaley, who attended the graduation of her younger daughter, Kelly, from North Carolina last Friday before heading to Long Island. She is a mentor to her niece, Phoebe Brinker, a junior at Archmere Academy in Claymont, Del., who has won two state high school championships and will enter Duke in the fall of 2020.
Most of all, Whaley enjoys being a role model.