- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

CROMWELL, Conn. — Fears that Suzy Whaley would have the worst score in the opening round of the Greater Hartford Open were unfounded.

That distinction belonged to slumping PGA star David Duval.

Making her much-heralded appearance on the men’s tour, Whaley shot a respectable but ultimately out of contention 5-over 75 yesterday. That was good enough to win over the hometown galleries but not the 137 men ahead of her on the leader board.

“I am extremely proud of the way I played. I’m proud of the way I hung in there,” said Whaley, the first woman to qualify for a PGA event since Babe Zaharias in 1945. “I had more fun than I thought I would. It was harder than I thought it would be, which is hard to believe, but the experience was absolutely more than I could have ever imagined.”

Whaley made a double-bogey on the first hole but then settled down and recorded her only birdie of the day on No.18. After her 37-foot putt from the fringe banged in off the pin, she raised her arms triumphantly and slapped hands with her caddie.

“I wanted to make a birdie so much today. I knew 18 was my last shot, but that putt is brutal,” she said. “I had a fleeting moment of, ‘Just feed it up there, get your par and get out of here.’ But, you know what, I’m a little too competitive for that.”

The putt brought roars from the gallery and smiles to the faces of her playing partners, even though it meant one of them, Anthony Painter, would finish below her. That put him in the company of 12 other men — including Duval, the 13-time tour winner and 2001 British Open champion who shot an 83, and 1987 U.S. Open winner Scott Simpson, who had a 77.

Peter Jacobsen and Jay Haas led the tournament at 7-under, with Dennis Paulson one stroke back.

Whaley played her way into the tournament by winning the state’s PGA section last fall, hitting from women’s tees that made the course about 10 percent shorter than her male competitors. But to play against them in the GHO, she would have to hit from the men’s tees — the full distance of 6,820 yards.

She decided to accept in December, but since then the hype was largely hijacked when Annika Sorenstam was given a sponsor’s exemption to play in the Colonial. Sorenstam, the best player on the women’s tour, missed the cut; Whaley, who played briefly on the LPGA Tour in the early 1990s, would need the round of a lifetime to make it.

The 36-hole cut is projected at even-par 140.

But the scores didn’t seem to matter to Whaley, or any of her supporters who filled the galleries to cheer her on.

A club pro at a course in nearby Avon whose husband is the general manager at the tournament site, Whaley has a one-name status here like Tiger or Arnie. In most cases, in fact, no name was needed — all it took was a “she,” as in, “here she comes,” or, too often, “she missed the putt.”

Fans wore “Fore Suzy!” and “Whaley Watchers” pins; one greenside house hung a banner that said, “GHO Suzy.” And unlike Sorenstam, whose appearance at the Colonial was controversial among some of the male players, Whaley was overwhelmingly welcomed by her temporary peers.

Duval, who has missed the cut in 12 of the 16 events he’s played this year, approached Whaley on the putting green before the round and wished her good luck.

“He introduced himself, which I thought was kind of funny because obviously I knew who he was,” Whaley said. “He told me to enjoy it and have a great day. I mean, I can’t say enough about the PGA Tour players.”

Playing in the last group of the afternoon, Whaley received an even warmer reception from the fans.

She got a huge ovation as she climbed to the first tee, then smacked her shot into the fairway, a little on the left side. She knocked her second shot 40 yards short of the green and chipped it within 5 feet.

But she three-putted for a 6 on the par-4, 434-yard hole, raising the possibility that her appearance could be a disaster.

“It was the most unbelievable moment walking up on that tee and having that many people cheering for me,” she said. “As soon as I walked off the tee, I thought the nerves were gone. I thought I had it totally under control until I put one foot on the green and it about sucked the wind out of me.

“I was extremely nervous,” she said. “But I just knew it was nerves and it wasn’t my stroke.”

That’s how a lot of the round went: Cheers at the tee, a short but safe drive into the fairway (she hit 10 of 14), and the media and gallery would follow to her second shot. Then, the whole contingent would pick up again and walk another 20-30 yards to where Painter and Akio Sadakata took their second shots — using irons when Whaley had used a wood.

With the disadvantage in driving distance, Whaley needed to make more putts to have a chance at real history. But she missed several birdie chances and — until No.18 — only made putts to save par.

Even so, Whaley considered her day a success.

“It was fun. That’s what I wanted her to have,” said Bucky McGann, her caddie and the father of LPGA player Michelle McGann. “She’s just a phenomenal good person, ambassador for golf.”

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