PALM BEACH GARDENS — Suzy Whaley made history the first day she became president of the PGA of America.
Nothing new there.
Whaley has been blazing trails since 2003, when she became the first woman since 1945 to qualify and play in a PGA Tour event.
It’s one thing to qualify for a PGA Tour event. It’s another to lead 29,000 PGA Professionals through the greatest health crisis of our lifetime – the coronavirus pandemic – that forced the PGA to postpone the Ryder Cup to 2021 and delay the PGA Championship to the fall and hold it without spectators.
Navigating through COVID-19 and the shutdown of golf for several months was a big part of Whaley’s task during the second year of her two-year presidential term that ends Thursday. They don’t teach these things in college.
But instead of complaining about the situation, Whaley helped find solutions and assistance while improving relationships among golf’s other governing bodies.
Sei Young Kim poses with the trophy and PGA President Suzi Whaley after winning the 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship golf tournament at Aronimink Golf Club. Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports
“People tend to say, ‘Oh, gosh, it was a COVID year,’ but I look at it differently,” said Whaley, the director of instruction at the Country Club at Mirasol.
“I look at it as showcasing the true depth and spirit of our PGA professionals, and what they’ve been able to accomplish for their communities during COVID-19 is something pretty special. We’ve had an opportunity to help old and new players get back into the game, and do so in a safe and responsible way. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Whaley has always tried to downplay the historical significance of her becoming the first female leader of the world’s largest sports organization. She considers herself one of 29,000 PGA Professionals who work long hours to promote the $85 billion industry.
“First and foremost, I am a PGA Professional,” she said. “Being a woman in this role has been exciting providing leadership in a room that typically had only been done by men. I’ve had an opportunity to engage with different audiences.”
Whaley won’t get the proper sendoff afforded PGA presidents by hosting the national meeting in her hometown. COVID-19 took that away, too.
Instead, there will be a virtual meeting this week when Whaley slides into an honorary two-year role as past president and the PGA elects a new secretary that will become president in four years. Lost Tree Club resident Seth Waugh, who became the PGA’s CEO early in Whaley’s term, has called her “a force of nature.”
“I said to her mid-summer, ‘Suzy, your legacy is going to be not only being Jackie Robinson for this association, but you saw us through a crisis,’” Waugh told PGA.com. “You’ve presided over something a whole lot more important than a home Ryder Cup, that is, getting us through this. That’s what I will always remember.”
Not only has golf gotten through the worst of the pandemic because the nature of the sport lends itself to social distancing, COVID-19 might actually be a blessing in disguise for golf. Whaley said the sport this summer experienced an increase of 20 percent in rounds played over last year as people were desperate to stay active.
Suzy Whaley prepares to play a tee shot on the first hole during the first round of the 2018 U.S. Senior Women’s Open. (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
“Now it’s our job to retain these new players and help them enjoy this great game,” Whaley said. “That’s our No.1 goal.”
The pandemic also showed how the partnerships between golf’s major governing bodies such as the PGA, the PGA Tour, the USGA and the R&A have improved in recent years. These organizations had to work together – that hasn’t always been the case; see the putter anchor issue – to reschedule golf’s most important events and help the sport re-start responsibly throughout the world.
“We couldn’t do this separately. We had to do it together,” Whaley said. “These relationships have helped us move forward when we could have stayed shut down.”
As someone who played college golf at North Carolina (she was going to become a lawyer), has played in a PGA Tour event and was captain last year of the PGA’s first Women’s Cup, Whaley is, of course, invested in promoting the sport to females.
The emergence of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the arrival of the Women’s Cup and the awarding of the inaugural Women’s PGA Player of the Year to Joanna Coe are tangible ways Whaley’s presidency can be measured.
“Those are things I’m very proud to leave behind,” she said.
Whaley won’t disappear from the sport, even after her two-year honorary term ends in 2022. She wants to be part of the game’s growth.
“I want to get back to competing and I love to teach at Mirasol,” she said. “But I will always try to stay involved in the administration of the game. It’s what I love to do.”
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