She has one more week. After six years on the PGA of America board, the last two as its first female president, Suzy Whaley’s tenure officially comes to a close on October 29. And while it hasn’t been what she expected, the experience has been more rewarding than she’d hoped.
“It’s been amazing,” Whaley said in the days immediately after she handed the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship trophy to Sei Young Kim at Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia. “The people I’ve had the opportunity to impact and be associated with have made this a great run.”
Few who saw Whaley in action would disagree with that assessment. What began as a breakthrough in gender relations ended with an unprecedented crisis that required leadership and decision-making on a scale Whaley could have never imagined when she ran for national office.
“I don’t think any business could have planned for a pandemic,” she said. “But we have this amazing staff (at the PGA). People may not know that we have staff on the ground (at our major championship sites) two years in advance. And our partners get excited at the beginning of the year for the championships. Well, this year by mid-March everything stopped. Golf shut down.
“There are countless PGA professionals who have gone to work every day to ensure that their communities have something pleasurable and joyful to participate in during this time. And they have done that without complaint.” – Suzy Whaley
“The impact of the pandemic, first and foremost, was what it did to our members and their jobs. Nobody really knew what was going to happen because it seemed to change day by day, state by state and locality by locality. We just knew that we had to help our members, so we shifted our priorities and put a board together and started the Golf Emergency Relief Fund, not just for PGA members but for those who work in the industry. We’re proud of that. We’ve given $10 million to that fund.
“We also wanted to make sure we were lobbying with others in the industry on both a national and a local level to show that golf can be a socially distanced sport and that PGA professionals could respond to the needs of their communities. The Back2Golf effort was a big part of that.”
Whaley and the PGA were a big part of the national Back2Golf protocols that convinced politicians and public health officials that golf was one of the best ways to keep citizens outside and healthy.
“Honestly, this pandemic has shined a bright light on who PGA professionals are,” Whaley said. “We – my husband, me and the rest of our members – will do whatever we can to help those around us. There are countless PGA professionals who have gone to work every day to ensure that their communities have something pleasurable and joyful to participate in during this time. And they have done that without complaint.”
Whaley was also a part of decisions to postpone the PGA Championship from May to August, shift the KPMG PGA Championship from June to October, and defer the Ryder Cup from 2020 t0 2021.
“As we started navigating the championships, we quickly realized that the PGA Championship was coming up too quickly and the area where we were playing (San Francisco) had some of the severest restrictions in the country,” she said. “We worked with the governor and the mayor. We were on the phone (with public officials) daily. Would it be with fans or without fans? How would we get players in? Was it safe to play under any circumstances? And it became evident pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to happen in May.
“Thankfully, we have a great relationship with the PGA Tour and have worked closely with them and were able to carve out a date in August. But as we got closer to August, that didn’t look great. Fans were out. That became obvious. But the staff and our CBS partners did a wonderful job getting the championship ready. We were the very first sporting event televised worldwide since the Super Bowl (in February), which was pretty incredible.
“It was also a huge responsibility. It allowed us to inspire the rest of the world. I think it was one of the most significant championships we’ve ever had. The players and the course performed as you would expect in a major.
“Then, we had the disappointment of having to push back the Ryder Cup. But the logistics were enormous. We had to coordinate with the European Tour and the PGA Tour and our worldwide partners in addition to the state of Wisconsin and the local officials. I must say, I was really looking forward to being president during a Ryder Cup. But it was the right decision, the only decision. And at the end of the day, we’re going to have a Ryder Cup. It’s important that everyone knows that it’s coming.
“As for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, to be able to host an event like that on a venue like Aronimink and see them play at that level was just amazing. It has become the players’ absolute favorite championship. They tell us that constantly. A big part of that is because we have worked from the very beginning to deliver the same experience to the players in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship that the men have at the PGA Championship. That is because of Kerry Haigh. He has been so devoted to showcasing these magnificent venues in a way that brings out the very best in the best players in the women’s game.
“For the six years since I first started as secretary until now, to be there at the first KPMG Women’s PGA Championship through what we just saw at Aronimink, that’s an important legacy for me,” Whaley added. “To see it grow. To see it become what it has become. To see the commitment and see what KPMG has done with it – not just with the commitment to the championship but to the women’s leadership summit, which is the premier leadership event in the country – I couldn’t be happier to have been a part of that.
“I’m a member of both, the LPGA Professionals and the PGA of America. When I first went on the (PGA) board, I knew that we needed to work closely together because I knew the education I had received at the LPGA and what I’d received at the PGA, and I knew how they mirrored each other. I knew that we had a great opportunity to learn from each other. To see where that has led, not just with our close relationship but with the growth of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, I couldn’t be happier.”
Leadership in a time of crisis is hard. The failures we’ve seen in many public and private institutions prove that. But the best leaders have inspired, calmed, and praised through one of the worst years anyone can remember.
Whaley is one of those.
“I’m so proud of our members,” she said. “The continual effort they have put forth during this time to do the right things for their communities, that’s what my tenure has been about.”
Top photo: Stacy Revere, Getty Images
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