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First Female PGA Officer Suzy Whaley Hopes To Make A Difference

Women make up just 4 percent of the PGA of America's membership. That's a number Suzy Whaley wants to improve. Montana Prtichard/The PGA of America

When Connecticut golf professional Suzy Whaley was elected secretary of the PGA of America on Nov. 22, becoming the 98-year-old organization's first female officer and positioning herself to become its president in four years, another trailblazing woman applauded from afar.

Barrie Naismith Jeffcoat -- at the time Barrie Naismith, a young pro in the Atlanta area -- had made history of a different sort more than three decades earlier. Frustrated by seeing male assistant pros move on to better jobs with the accompanying benefits she couldn't pursue because of her gender, the 29-year-old sued to join the PGA.

"I helped the male assistants. I wrote letters of recommendation for them," Jeffcoat recalled of that period in the 1970s. "Finally, about two range pickers later, I wondered why I was getting them jobs and I couldn't get one."

Under legal pressure, the PGA of America changed its bylaws and the Naismith Consent Decree of Dec. 18, 1978, gave female golf professionals the same rights as males in seeking PGA membership. On Feb. 1, 1979, when Whaley was a girl in Syracuse, New York, already aware of discrimination within golf -- someone crossed her name off a sign-up sheet for a junior tournament at the country club where her family belonged because she was female -- Naismith became the PGA's first female member.

"I think Suzy's a real attractive gal with a lot of personality," Jeffcoat said in a phone interview from her Virginia home. "She's paid a lot of dues and has done things the right way. I commend her, and I'm thrilled to see her be an officer."

In contrast to the wearying opposition and derisive comments Naismith encountered when she pushed the envelope, Whaley won a clear first-ballot election over two opponents during the PGA's annual meeting in Indianapolis. A presence on the national golf scene since competing in the 2003 Greater Hartford Open -- the first female to qualify for a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias in 1945 -- Whaley, 48, received 52.63 percent of the 114 votes cast by PGA delegates, only three of whom were women, to defeat runner-up Russ Libby by 19 percentage points.

After her two-year term as secretary and two years as vice president, Whaley is in line to be the PGA's first female president in 2018. That will be 22 years after Judy Bell became the first woman selected to head the USGA and 13 years since Carolyn Bivens was hired as the LPGA's first female commissioner.

"I didn't run for the historic nature of it, I ran because I really feel I can make a difference," Whaley said on a quiet December morning in the TPC River Highlands clubhouse in Cromwell, Connecticut. "Only a few of the delegates were females, and I hope my election was based on my capabilities as a member. I'm a proud PGA member who wanted to be a part of the direction we're headed. We're striving to work hard so that the game is inclusive, diverse."

Women make up only about 4 percent of the PGA of America's 28,000 members, leaving Whaley lots of room to influence and encourage other females to join her in the golf business.

"We've been working to get the numbers up, and we strive to do more of that," she said. "You may not want to stand in a golf shop, but there are other opportunities. We need to talk about the different tracks people can take in the business."

Whaley believes having more women working at golf facilities can be a welcoming factor as the industry looks for more female golfers.

"We need to speak directly to female consumers," she said. "What is it that you value on your day off? That you value for your family? What can we offer you so you can enjoy the incredible benefits of the game? We have to understand what they really want and accommodate our operations to them."

Solutions to the decline in golf's popularity in a changing society, according to Whaley, can include simple instruction and early ventures on shorter holes with realistic pars that foster confidence instead of frustration; incorporating services like grocery shopping and takeout menus from nearby restaurants; and accommodating golfers willing to pay a premium with a "fast pass" window of tee times that guarantee a brisk pace.

"Let's start talking about ways that we can make our game fit into our customers' lives instead of vice versa," Whaley said. "Growing the game, in my opinion, encompasses three things: How do we get back the people who used to play? How do we create a manageable game for those who are just starting out? And how do we get our core player, our best customer, to play more golf?"

Whaley's ascension in the PGA coincided with another milestone for women in golf: After 260 years, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in Scotland voted in September to allow female members. But the culmination of more than a year of campaigning by Whaley also came only weeks after PGA president Ted Bishop was removed from office prior to the end of his term after using social media to criticize golfer Ian Poulter with what some viewed as gender-insensitive comments.

"I hope people remember Ted for his accomplishments," Whaley said. "Ted did some incredible things for golf and women's golf. We all make mistakes. I hope we all learned from that, that we understand the responsibility a leader has in the social media landscape, which is very hard to navigate. What you say can be construed by millions in seconds."

Whaley, a PGA of America national board member from 2011 to 2013, got a taste of what it was like to be under an intense spotlight after deciding to play against the men in the 2003 PGA Tour event at TPC River Highlands, where her husband, Bill, was general manager and where she operates her instruction school today. In the nine months leading up to her historic appearance after winning the Connecticut section PGA title, she gave more than 1,800 interviews.

Once she got on the damp, 6,820-yard, par-70 course, Whaley -- who competed briefly on the LPGA Tour in the early 1990s after being on the women's golf team and earning an economics degree at North Carolina -- fared better than skeptics had predicted. Playing with a sprained wrist and after making a double bogey on the opening hole of the first round, Whaley settled down to shoot a 75. She missed the cut by 13 strokes following a second-round 78, but her 153 total was far below the 36-hole over/under of 170 set by oddsmakers.

"It was brave to do it. It was groundbreaking, and it was exciting," Whaley said, reflecting on that emotional week 11 years ago. "It was out of my comfort zone, a lot of sacrifice and hard work. It didn't come easy.

"Having played there had a huge impact on my ability to step into this situation as a PGA officer. Every time you do something that pushes you out of your comfort zone, it pushes your ability to lead."

Whaley was overcome with emotion as her daughters, Jennifer and Kelly, were beside her when she made history off the course in Indianapolis, where the PGA vote was held. But it wasn't until she attended a party for incoming PGA of America president Derek Sprague at his golf club in Malone, New York, a couple of weeks later that she realized the significance of her new role.

"About a third of his membership is female," Whaley said, "and when I walked into the room these women were so incredibly excited to have me there and they wanted me to know how important they thought it was. That's when it really struck me. There was an overwhelming amount of support and delight in my election."

Sprague knows he may have to share with Whaley some of the spotlight customarily accorded the president. He doesn't mind.

"I don't know if I'd use the word 'symbol,' but electing the first female certainly does make a very powerful statement," Sprague said. "Diversity and inclusion is one of the core things in our long-term strategic plan. She's living evidence we believe in that. In four years, if all goes well, she'll be leading the largest working sports organization in the world as a female."

Regardless of any hurdles that may remain for women in golf, at least there are avenues available for female professionals. Jeffcoat recalled a phone conversation with a PGA of America official when she first inquired about membership.

"He told me I could call Jimmy Carter, who was president at the time, and it wouldn't do any good," Jeffcoat said. Instead, she called a good attorney, setting the wheels of change in motion.

Thirty-six years later, two female employees at River Highlands who hadn't seen Whaley since her election greeted her warmly in the clubhouse. "Yay for us," Whaley said, giving them hugs a long time in the making.