Column: A golf pro first, Suzy Whaley now breaking barriers
Two moments of discrimination took place 1,000 miles and worlds apart, neither pointing to Suzy Whaley making history this week at the PGA of America.
Whaley was just getting hooked on golf in Syracuse, New York, and she was good enough to compete in tournaments when her name was scratched off the entry list of a junior tournament for boys because she was a girl.
"And now I've played in a PGA Tour event," said Whaley, who at the 2003 Greater Hartford Open became the first woman in 58 years to qualify for a PGA Tour event. "Look how far we've gone. It's not where we need to be, but we're making progress. And that makes me smile."
Around the time Whaley had her first whiff of discrimination as a young girl, Barrie Naismith Jeffcoat was working at a golf club in Atlanta as a 29-year-old woman who was giving lessons and going nowhere.
She hired young men to handle the carts and pick up golf balls from the range. Some of them went on to become PGA professionals and got jobs at other clubs.
She couldn't join the PGA as a certified pro because she was a woman.
"Something was wrong with this picture," Naismith Jeffcoat said in a telephone interview Monday from her home in Virginia. "At the time I was giving lessons to Superior Court Judge (Joel) Fryer. He gave me the name of his attorney. The attorney advised me to call the PGA. I got a lawyer on the phone with the PGA and he told me, 'You can call Jimmy Carter, but it won't do you any good.'"
Instead of calling the president, she filed a lawsuit against the PGA in 1978. By the end of the year, the PGA signed the Naismith Consent Degree, giving women equal rights to become PGA professionals. Naismith became the first female member on Feb. 1, 1979.
She stayed with the PGA a few more years, yet the impact will be felt strongest this week at the PGA of America's annual meeting in California.
Whaley is set to become the first female president in its 102-year history.
"I'm so thrilled she'll have a high profile," said Naismith Jeffcoat, who has never met Whaley. "There will be a lot of young women that will take up the game and want to be involved. It's very exciting to me to see it come to fruition."
Whaley is a consensus-builder, perhaps her greatest asset.
She is foremost a golf professional, still giving private lessons at Suzy Whaley Golf, the course she owns in Cromwell, Connecticut, and serving as PGA director of instruction at the Country Club of Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, during the winter months. Her husband, Bill, was her first golf coach. Both her daughters played in college.
"My strength would be that I love the game of golf. I want to get clubs in people's hands," said Whaley, recently certified as a master professional. "My vision for the membership is to help enhance their careers. How can we get them resources and tools to go where they want to go?"
She also recognizes the historic occasion of the annual meeting Friday, and she doesn't take it lightly.
"It's definitely historic, and I'm honored and completely grateful the membership has that faith and trust," she said. "I look at myself as a PGA professional first. Obviously, I'm a woman. I understand the moniker. There are women who have paved the way before me."
One was Renee Powell, who last year was inducted into the PGA of America Hall of Fame. Another was Sue Fiscoe, who ran unsuccessfully for national office at the PGA in 2012, which motivated Whaley to run herself two years later.
Whaley rose to national prominence when she won the Connecticut PGA section in 2002, earning a spot in the Greater Hartford Open. That's what inspired Annika Sorenstam to say she would accept an invitation to a PGA Tour event, which she received within weeks at the Colonial. Sorenstam played two months before Whaley.
Her name recognition might have received a boost when weeks before Whaley's election as secretary in 2014, Ted Bishop was ousted as PGA president for calling Ian Poulter a "Lil girl" during a social media rant.
But while Naismith Jeffcoat caused consternation in some circles — after she joined the PGA of America, two men threatened to sue to join the LPGA — Whaley received 53 percent of the votes from PGA delegates, only three of whom were women, and won election by 19 percentage points.
After two years as secretary and two years as vice president, it's time for the 51-year-old Whaley to lead the 29,000 men and women at the PGA of America. She didn't want to be president because she's a woman.
She still understands the moment in front of her.
"I wanted to have a seat at the table, a voice in the room," she said. "I didn't look at it as male or female. I felt I had something to contribute. That doesn't mean it's not difficult. It's an enormous opportunity for equality, and to showcase to women what they can do. Golf is an $84 billion industry we want to contribute to."