- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

AVON, Conn. — Suzy Whaley is running late. The 36-year-old teaching pro pulls into her club parking lot 15 minutes before her tee time in a charity tournament and still has a couple of interviews to do.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Whaley says. “My children have been sick for a week and I just can’t seem to get them past it.”

For the next several minutes, Whaley is all smiles as she patiently answers questions about today’s Greater Hartford Open. She qualified for a spot in the tournament by winning the Connecticut PGA section title last fall, becoming the first woman to qualify for a PGA event since 1945.

Life hasn’t been the same for Whaley, who will play in a PGA Tour event two months after Annika Sorenstam competed with the men in the Colonial.

Whaley needed a publicist to handle the barrage of media requests, stepped up her competitive schedule, and increased her physical workouts while continuing to teach at Blue Fox Run Golf Course.

“I feel like I’m running a race, a marathon,” the mother of two young girls said. “I’m in better shape than I was in than when I was 16. I didn’t say I wear the same size, but I’m in better shape.”

Despite her hectic schedule, which she says is “part of the deal,” Whaley is having fun. Phil Mickelson may be the two-time defending champion of the GHO, but Whaley has grabbed her share of the headlines.

Her face is everywhere — on billboards and in newspaper ads. She’s on local talk radio, promoting her charities and the tournament.

Buy an advance “Suzy” ticket and $10 goes to junior golf. All of the proceeds from $3 “Fore Suzy” buttons, which will be sold on the course this week, go to the March of Dimes.

Whaley said it was important to make the most of her opportunity and to make it count for something positive.

“Not only am I out there hopefully showing some young people what they can do with their lives and showing my girls that something that I never dreamed possible is, but I get to say look what we did for some babies to have a healthy start,” Whaley said. “And look what we did for some kids to get golf growing.”

Tournament officials are hoping Whaley does for the GHO what Sorenstam did for the Colonial, when she became the first woman since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to play against the men. GHO organizers anticipate a large media presence, fielding requests from around the country and internationally.

The GHO is one of seven tournaments on the PGA Tour in need of a title sponsor; Canon pulled out of the GHO last year after 18 years. Officials scrambled last winter to put together enough local corporate sponsors to come up with $4 million, enough to break even this year.

Dan Baker, the GHO’s tournament director, attended the Colonial and was amazed at what he saw.

“I’ve never been to a golf tournament where everyone was rooting for one person,” he said. “I’ve never seen more positive energy.”

Whaley, he said, personifies positive energy.

“How lucky we are that she’s got her priorities set. She knows what’s important in life,” Baker said. “I can be completely miserable and she calls up, and instantly I’m smiling. I can feel her smiling on the phone.”

Whaley’s qualifying prompted the PGA of America to change its sectional tournament rules.

She won her sectional last year playing from tees that made the course about 10 percent shorter than what the men faced. In January, the organization changed the sectional rules to make women play from the same tee as men, a regulation that became known as the “Whaley Rule.”

She took it in stride.

“It’s always nice to have a rule named after you,” she said.

Mickelson said Whaley has earned her way into the field and welcomes her participation.

“I think that the PGA Tour is not the men’s professional golf tour. I look at the PGA Tour as being the tour for the best players in the world, regardless of race, regardless of sex,” he said. “It makes no difference to me whether the participant is a male or female.”

Unlike Sorenstam, Whaley is not a fixture on the LPGA Tour. She prefers to teach, promote junior golf and raise her daughters with her husband, Bill Whaley, the general manager of the TPC at River Highlands in Cromwell, the GHO course.

She’s made two LPGA cuts this year out of a handful of tournaments and faces her toughest challenge in just a few days. Only one Connecticut PGA section player in the last 20 years has made the GHO cut.

Her preparations this week have been hampered by rain.

Whaley squeezed in two practice sessions Tuesday before the rain started. She gave herself mixed reviews, admitting to a case of nerves after missing a few shots.

“I started to sweat!” she said, laughing.

But after a weather delay, she improved on the back nine. She received some advice from her sports psychologist, Richard Coop, and on the 14th hole her husband offered some encouragement.

Whaley knows the course well and plays it frequently. After winning the sectional in September, Whaley spent the last year working hard.

There’s been cardiovascular training, strength training and four LPGA events. Whaley said she is hitting the ball 15 yards farther than last year, carrying it about 240 yards.

Whaley says she hasn’t set a specific goal for the tournament, and she’s been tightlipped about her practice scores.

“I just think getting that first tee shot in the air will be fun,” she said. “Once that’s done and over, I can smile, relax and breathe.”

The smile is a given.

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