Golf ambassador/pioneer Suzy Whaley still breaking barriers, still growing the game

Golf ambassador/pioneer Suzy Whaley still breaking barriers, still growing the game

Long before she blazed trails down golf course fairways and through corporate glass ceilings, Suzy Whaley devoted her life to schussing down mountain slopes.

“I loved all sports, but ski racing was my main passion growing up,’’ the first woman president of the PGA of America was saying recently from her Florida home. “I wanted to be an Olympic skier. That was my dream.”

It was a dream on the verge of coming true until that fateful day during her sophomore year of high school. While competing for the Olympic development ski team in Killington, Vt., in the winter of 1982, Whaley took a nasty spill and suffered compressed vertebrae in her back. Although she eventually climbed back on her skis and earned a scholarship to the University of Colorado, she never was quite the same intrepid, dynamic racer she had been.

Fortunately, the longtime Syracuse resident also excelled at golf, and that sport would enable her to conquer barriers confronting her and numerous others. In golf parlance, her Plan B turned out to be dead, solid, perfect.

While helping the Jamesville-DeWitt High School boys golf team win sectional and state championships, Whaley caught the eye of the University of North Carolina women’s coach. After determining her ski racing career wasn’t going to pan out during her freshman year of college, Whaley accepted the Tarheels offer of a golf scholarship and left Boulder for Chapel Hill, N.C.

Skiing’s loss would be golf’s gain. Though she didn’t become the next Nancy Lopez, Whaley did become a sports pioneer. Along the way, she impacted countless golf balls — and lives.

As a game-changing player, teacher, and leader, Whaley has played an integral role in growing the game, particularly among women. At the 2003 Greater Hartford Open, she became the first female since Babe Didrikson Zaharias 58 years earlier to qualify for and play in a men’s PGA Tour event. In 2018 — years after she established herself as one of golf’s most respected voices — Whaley made history again, becoming the first woman to head the PGA of America. Calling upon golf and life lessons imparted by her mother, Mary Ann McGuire, and legendary Syracuse pro Joe Tesori, Whaley blossomed into one of the game’s most revered coaches. Over time, she has conducted hundreds of youth clinics and coached teams that have won prestigious national and international tournaments. One of her proudest accomplishments is mentoring more than 300 golfers who have gone on to earn college scholarships.

So, it is fitting that Wednesday of PGA Championship week, her illustrious career will be celebrated again when the Country Club of Rochester presents her with the Walter Hagen Ambassador of the Game Award. Not surprisingly, the always gracious Whaley has agreed to conduct a youth golf clinic at CCR the day before she receives an engraved watch similar to the one presented to Hagen by the Prince of Wales after he won the 1922 British Open.

“To receive an honor named after Walter Hagen is extremely gratifying and humbling because few people had a greater impact on the game than he did,’’ Whaley said. “He had few peers as a player. [His 11 major titles trail only Jack Nicklaus’s 18 and Tiger Woods’ 15]. And people forget that he captained the first six U.S. Ryder Cup teams.”

But, as Whaley is quick to point out, Hagen’s imprint goes well beyond his playing prowess. The East Rochester native and former CCR caddie and pro helped launch the PGA in 1916, and his ball-striking skills and panache helped take a heretofore rich-man’s game to the masses. “He had to overcome some huge hurdles of his own because back in his day the game was ruled by amateurs; pros were looked down upon,’’ Whaley said. “He helped the professional game gain acceptance and status. His flamboyant style and people-loving personality, and his tour around the world really laid the foundation for the enormous global popularity the game enjoys today.”

Hagen’s greatest role was golf ambassador. And that is why CCR’s feting of Whaley is so fitting because she, too, has been a great advocate of the game. Like Hagen, she boasts an infectious personality and sense of humor that’s evident when she recounts the story about the first time she swung a club as 9-year-old at Syracuse’s Calvary Golf Club.

“I was always competing with the boys and one day after racing against them in the swimming pool, I followed them over to the driving range — in my bathing suit,’’ she recalled, chuckling. “I’m out there, hitting golf balls, when an adult contacts the pro about my inappropriate attire. They called mom off the course, and I thought she was going to yell at me. Instead, she asked, ‘Do you like golf?’ I said, ‘I love it.’ And she calmly told me, ‘Well, let’s get you some suitable clothes, and then I can start teaching you how to play.’ ’’

Whaley flourished under the compassionate guidance of her mom and Tesori. There weren’t any scholastic girls’ golf teams in Central New York at the time, so Whaley tried out for the boys team, and quickly established herself as one of J-D’s better players. “The memory I cherish most is how they accepted me and respected me,’’ she said. “They treated me based on my playing ability, and I really appreciated that. All these years later, we’re still good friends.”

After a stellar college golfing career, Whaley spent several years on the LPGA tour, but her most memorable playing experience occurred when she won a Connecticut sectional PGA tournament in 2002, which qualified her for the following summer’s Greater Hartford Open. In that era, women competing in men’s qualifying tournaments, were allowed to play from women’s tees, meaning their distance to the holes was about 10 percent shorter. The rule – since changed — resulted in Whaley receiving an unhealthy dose of criticism and hate mail. Misogynists called her a fraud — and much worse.

She deliberated for about three months before deciding to compete in the Greater Hartford Open against the world’s best men’s players from men’s tees. A blunt question from her then-eight-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was the deciding factor.

“We had just finished reading a bedtime story about being brave and taking risks, and out of the blue, Jenn asks me: ‘Mom, why aren’t you playing?’’’ Whaley recalled. “It caught me off guard, but also lit a fire. I immediately told her that I was absolutely going to play — and that was that. I went downstairs and told my husband I had made my decision or, rather, that Jenn had made the decision for me. I realized I needed to play for Jenn and her young sister, Kelly, and for all the other young girls and women who deserved to have these opportunities.”

Her appearance at the tournament attracted enormous media attention and scrutiny, and although Whaley missed the cut, she acquitted herself well, shooting a 75 and a 78, while beating three male professionals. “In retrospect, I’m so glad I listened to her,’’ she said of Jenn, who went on to play and coach golf at Quinnipiac University. “I was incredibly nervous, but I wound up playing the best golf of my life and proving something to myself and others.”

Whaley can’t wait to return to Rochester next week. She’s always marveled at the town’s love affair with golf and will never forget the way it supported LPGA tournaments for 38 consecutive years before the tour left town after the 2014 Wegmans LPGA Championship. “I’ve never met nicer people on the planet,’’ she said. “I tell people that if I had a second home it would be in Rochester. And I mean that sincerely. I really hope someday there will be another LPGA event there because the respect that city and upstate New York has for women’s golf is second to none.”

The 56-year-old Whaley is looking forward to this year’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. When asked to handicap the field, the longtime golf commentator immediately mentions this year’s Masters champion Jon Rahm, along with Tony Finau, Max Homa, Keegan Bradley, and dark horse Jason Dufner, who won the 2013 PGA here, but hasn’t tasted victory for six years. “Should be a fun week,’’ she said.

A week in which she is rightfully honored for perpetuating Hagen’s goodwill.

“When I reflect, golf has given me far more than I ever could give it back,’’ she said. “I met my husband Bill through the game. My daughters play the game. My mom was my first teacher and caddie. It’s been a part of so many facets of my personal and professional life. To receive an award named after somebody who made golf what it is today and to receive it in a place that means so much to me is truly exciting.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.