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Swinging for Women Athletes: Female Golfer Debates Taking on Men's Best - 2002-11-09


For the most part, men and women do not go head to head in any professional sport. But one woman has the opportunity to change that, on the golf course.

As long as there's daylight and no snow on the ground, Suzy Whaley is working at the Blue Fox Run Golf Club in Avon Connecticut. As the club's head teaching pro, the tall, athletic mother-of-two gives golf lessons, assigns tee times and routinely cleans golf carts. But in the last 8 weeks Whaley's life has been anything but routine.

In September she played a local championship tournament against other teaching pros, most of who were men. Whaley's used to playing with the boys. She says she likes the challenge. This time the game came down to her and one other player. "I had one of those days where I shot very straight, I was always on his heels," she says. "When we came down the stretch, the last five holes, I made some crucial putts. On the 17th hole, I made a three and he made a four, so I went into 18 one stroke up and ultimately ended up winning by two. It was exciting, hard fought."

And it was historic. Her victory gave her an automatic berth in the Greater Hartford Open, a major tournament on the men's professional golf tour. No woman has ever qualified for a men's PGA competition. Whaley says she couldn't have imagined the whirl of events that would be unleashed by her win. "I signed my card, took a deep breath, my mom was caddying for me. Literally after I handed my card in, our Executive Director told me I had a phone call," she says. "I thought it was my husband, but it was the PGA of America asking me if I was going to play in the Greater Hartford Open. And I said, 'gosh, I don't have any idea if I'm going to play in that,' and they said, 'okay, let us know.'"

They weren't the only ones who wanted to know. The next morning at 6 o'clock, Whaley's phone rang with the first of hundreds of interview requests from around the world. Her answering machine never stopped blinking. Satellite TV trucks parked at her golf course. Sportswriters urged her to play in the Greater Hartford Open in the name of women athletes everywhere. Although in the early 1990's she spent a few years touring with the LPGA, Whaley never intended to storm the gates of professional men's golf. She won the privilege by coming up through the ranks of the golf teaching pros. Whaley is a skilled golf pro, but she's not a professional touring player.

Any competitive dreams she may hold are squeezed in between her family time and her fulltime job. "I think a lot of the women in the business with me, their background isn't competitive playing, but it is mine, and I choose to spend a lot of time on that. I choose not to give that part up," she says. "A lot of women, there's not enough time in the day; this is a 7-day a week job. You don't get a day off. If you have a family, it's hard to juggle it all. I choose to make time for my competitive golf."

If she does choose to play against the men next June, she'll have to embark on a training regimen so she can deliver her best game. But, according to Susan Reed, editor in chief of Golf for Women magazine, even her best game might not be good enough… some will still point out her weaknesses compared to the pros. "There will be a lot of attention on her. There will be a lot of people saying, 'it's great for women, great for the game, play, Suzy, play.' She will be criticized as well: 'you can't hold your own, you're not as good, and you shouldn't play and embarrass women golfers.' But I don't think she will. I think her accomplishment is an inspiration to men and women and little boys and little girls everywhere," she says.

When she won in September, Whaley played from the women's tees set several meters closer to each hole. In the Greater Hartford Open, she'd be playing from the men's tees, adding more pressure to her game. Whaley says it's a difficult choice. "The reasons for playing [are] inspiration to young women, I would hope that would be the case… to make history… For me, I just don't want it to become an issue if I were to play poorly. I don't want it to become, 'women don't belong out here.' I'm very serious about my competitive golf. Do I think I could be competitive against that field? I wouldn't even venture to say I could compete with a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson. This is what they do for a living! They're far stronger than I am, and they do this every day! I check people in behind a counter! I wouldn't want anyone to make it an issue or to make women's golf look bad," she says. "I only want to support women's golf and help it grow."

Meanwhile Suzy Whaley works in the pro shop, and in between answering the phone and taking greens fees, she weighs her odds. To add to the pressure, the Greater Hartford Open still lacks full sponsorship for the 2003 event. Whaley's entry could help bring in the final dollars. She's expected to announce her decision soon.

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