Suzy Whaley – Leadership
“I’m honored to be called a role model, trailblazer. I’m just trying to make a difference.”
Suzy Whaley grew up in Syracuse, New York. She loved the outdoors and played numerous sports. One summer day, while she was with her friends at a country club pool, she was invited to tag along to the golf course. “Some of the boys I swam with were like, ‘come on, we’re going to hit some golf balls, you wanna come,’ I was like yah, absolutely.” Shortly thereafter, her mother got a call from the golf course because little Suzy was wearing a bathing suit while playing golf. Instead of yelling at her daughter for being in the wrong clothes, her mother looked at Suzy and asked, “Do you like this (golf)?” Her response was, “I actually love it.”
This started a love affair with the game of golf that would last a lifetime. Because Title IX was just getting started, there weren’t as many opportunities for females as there were for boys in golf. For example, she attempted to enter a tournament at the age of 11 and she was told that it was FOR BOYS ONLY. Suzy reflected. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t understand. I just want to have fun playing golf just like they do.’ I didn’t think it was fair.” So, since her parents were supportive, they switched to a different club that would allow Suzy and her sister to participate. However, when she went to high school, her school did not offer a girl’s golf team. So Suzy competed on the boy’s team. And this led to an athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina where she competed four years on the women’s golf team.
After college, Suzy passed on law school in order to take a shot on the LPGA Tour. No one would say that she had a stellar career on the pro tour, but she did have one claim to fame. In 2002, while working as a golf pro in Connecticut, she won the Connecticut PGA Championship, beating all the men. Within minutes of winning this event, her cell phone rang. It was the PGA Tour, asking her if she would accept the exemption to play in the Greater Hartford Open. She asked them for some time to think it over. “I had never considered it,” she would later say. “I had honestly never imagined that they would allow a woman to play on the PGA Tour.”
For three months, Suzy contemplated the decision. Then, one night, she was reading a book to her 9-year-old daughter, Jenn. “We were reading a story at night, like we always did. It was about taking opportunities, taking chances and being brave.” At the conclusion of the story, Jenn innocently asked, “Well then Mom, why aren’t you playing?” Suzy looked her daughter right in the eye and responded, “Well, I am.” She immediately walked down the stairs and called the PGA to let them know that she accepted. “It was that simple.” Suzy became the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event since Babe Didrikson Zaharias did so in 1946.
However, this biography is about leadership and it goes beyond gender. Yes, Suzy became one of the best teaching pros in the country. She earned national awards and was named a top-rated instructor. She is one of nine master instructors registered as a PGA and LPGA professional. She flourished in her roles as a professional, a wife, and a mother of two girls. However, she felt there was something more she was meant to do. Deep down, she knew she was a leader and had an insatiable desire to give back to the game of golf. And this is why we offer her to you as a role model.
Wanting to fulfill her identity as a potential leader, in 2014 Suzy decided to run for secretary of the PGA of America. The voting delegation consisted of 111 men and 3 women. Nevertheless, Suzy easily received the votes needed to become the first female officer of the PGA of America. And, in 2018, when the PGA fired its former president for using sexist comments on social media, Suzy took the helm. She became the first female president of the PGA of America. Despite the sudden change, Suzy was ready for this leadership role saying, “It’s humbling, it’s exciting and it’s an enormous responsibility, one that I was ready for.”
During her acceptance speech, Suzy articulated her vision and set achievable goals for this organization that includes 29,000 club pros across the country.
“Together, I know we can get clubs in people’s hands. Right now, we have to come together and focus on what we have in common, which is our love for the game and our shared obligation to do what is in the best interest of the PGA of America. We can make our courses look more like the communities we serve, which is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good for business.”
The first objective of her administration was to put inclusion and diversity in the forefront. Golf had long been viewed as an exclusive and stodgy sport for the wealthy white man. Suzy knew that wasn’t true and she wanted everyone else to know the truth too. Suzy wanted others to love the game the same way as her. “One of our biggest challenges, that I took at as an enormous opportunity, is getting more people on our golf courses. We want to welcome women to golf courses. We want more junior girls and junior boys playing golf.”
She and her team identified barriers that many experienced with golf and set out to dismantle them one by one. She reached out to minority groups and openly told them that this sport was for them too. “Can you wear sneakers? Absolutely! Do you have to have a golf outfit? No, you do not. Do you have to have equipment? No, most places across the country have equipment for you.” The game of golf was evolving, and she wanted to get this powerful message out, not only to the current generation of kids, but also to every PGA Professional.
Derek Sprague, PGA Board member acknowledged the need for change: For example, the rules of golf had become so complex that a pro on the PGA Tour sometimes needed to call over a rules official to get a ruling on a shot. If these rules can confuse a tour player who does this for a living, imagine how intimidated the average golfer might feel, let alone the beginning golfer. “We’re sometimes viewed as a traditional sport, certainly a traditional organization that does not move quickly. Suzy asked us ‘why not — why can’t we do these things?’” The result, under Suzy’s leadership in 2019, was a major revision of its rules.
One challenge that Suzy did not anticipate was shepherding the game of golf through the Covid-19 global pandemic. Early on, nearly every golf course in the country was forced to close. However, the PGA of America quickly established safety protocols and encouraged courses to reopen. Golf became a safe haven and emerged stronger than ever. It became increasingly difficult to schedule tee-times across the country. Golf course executives reported record revenue in 2020 and again in 2021. During Suzy’s tenure, the growth of the game exploded. At least some of that growth was due to juniors and women feeling welcomed on the course.
Suzy’s final major objective was to help the 29,000 PGA professionals fall in love with the game of golf all over again. With her enthusiasm, infectious smile, and engaging personality, she encouraged teaching pros to make more time to play the game. Mark Hill, head golf pro at the Grand Traverse Resort, had the opportunity to play in a tournament with Suzy in Arizona. Afterwards, Mark said, “Suzy was awesome to be around and we had a blast. She encouraged all of us club pros to get out there and play more golf with the members and don’t just stand behind the counter all day.”
Clearly, Suzy’s leadership has changed the look, feel and complexion of golf. Years from now, when people discuss who impacted the game of golf, particularly for women, Suzy’s name is always going to come up. “Her presence alone has allowed women to dream about being president or taking leadership roles,” stated LPGA golfer, Seul-Ki Park Hawley. “She has allowed our dreams to come true.”
Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour fully understands the importance of Suzy’s vision: “We’re just getting going with Suzy. As great of an impact as she’s had, it’s going to be much greater over the next 10 or 20 years.” The fact is, an effective leader with a powerful vision can create a positive culture that can positively impact everything and everyone in the organization. Even if you have never heard her name before, it’s clear that Suzy’s bold leadership has profoundly changed the game of golf.
Suzy Whaley is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school:Check out the Student Athlete Program