Suzy Whaley, the incoming president of the PGA of America, is renowned for her irrepressible energy and an always-optimistic outlook on life. Yet even she seems to have an extra bounce in her step and a brighter glint in her eye when she talks about the increased opportunities now available for senior players to compete in tournaments of the highest quality.
It may have taken a long time to come to fruition, way longer than many would have hoped, but the landscape is at last changing. The inaugural Senior LPGA Championship was hosted at French Lick last year, and a second edition will be held at the same venue in two months' time, from October 15-17. Whaley plans to be back at French Lick in competition mode for a second year in a row.
Add to that the inaugural U.S. Senior Women's Open, which was played last month at Chicago Golf Club where Whaley was also in the field, and it's no wonder that she oozes excitement about what is now possible for the best players in the world aged 45 and above (at the Senior LPGA Championship) and aged 50 and above (at the U.S. Senior Women's Open).
"It's just wonderful to have an opportunity to compete," Whaley, who became the PGA of America's Vice President in 2016, told LPGA.com. "We don't have that opportunity often, to compete. A few of the older women are still competing in LPGA Tour events and LET events but for the majority of us we're working in the business. I'm in the industry, as are many others.
“I think there were 50 of us at the U.S. Senior Women's Open who work in the golf professional industry and we love to still play. This gives us a moment in time where we feel we are back at it, we are behind the ropes playing a major championship at major championship venues with challenging pins and holes.
"Of course, it matters for some players what they shoot but it doesn't matter to me what I shoot. To be at Chicago Golf Club for the inaugural Senior Women's Open, to be at French Lick last year ... it's making a statement to those that come behind us, we are setting the work for you and we want you to have a place to play when you leave the Tour. We want you to have a place to visit your friends and to be with people that you have always been around on the golf course. And so it's a special time. I only see women's golf evolving, which is really exciting. It makes me thrilled to be a part of the game."
GETTING IN MORE PREPARATION
Englishwoman Trish Johnson led wire-to-wire to win the inaugural Senior LPGA Championship last year by three shots after posting a four-under total. Whaley finished well back in a tie for 55th and even though she plays very little competition golf these days, she hopes to fare better in October if she can get in a bit more preparation.
"I did not play well last year at French Lick and so my goal this year would be to really get round one in where I do a little better than I did last year," said Whaley, who in 2003 became the first woman since Babe Zaharias (in 1945) to qualify for a PGA Tour event by winning the 2002 Connecticut PGA Section Championship. "Certainly I work on my game a lot, I strive to play great. I just don't have a whole lot of opportunity to tee it up in tournaments.
“So for me it will be what tournaments can I play in before I get to French Lick, if my schedule will allow it, so I have a little more preparation than last year because it matters. It matters when you have to put the ball in the hole and have things count. If you can do that a couple of weeks out and then one more week in and then before you get there, it makes all the difference in the world for your confidence."
World Golf Hall of Fame member Laura Davies triumphed in regal style at the U.S. Senior Women's Open, ending a truly memorable week at Chicago Golf Club as a runaway first champion as she crushed the field by 10 strokes.
The storied layout, a links-style masterpiece with massive, square-shaped greens, was a magnificent venue where both long and short-hitters could thrive. The United States Golf Association did a fantastic job in setting up the course in a fair but testing manner, no easy task given that the field ranged from a couple of fifty-somethings (Davies and Juli Inkster) who still play a somewhat regular schedule on the LPGA Tour to 70-somethings who compete only four or five times each year at best.
Fans were given the rare luxury of being able to walk the fairways with the players, many of whom were Hall of Famers, and that created an intimate almost throwback atmosphere that was widely embraced by the competitors in a starting field of 120.
“To be back in a competitive field with women who were on my walls when I was aged just 12, who inspired me to be a professional golfer, and then to have the chance to compete with them in the same 18 holes of golf is something that I'll cherish forever,” said Whaley, who missed the cut by just one shot in Chicago.
For many, it has been very frustrating that the introduction of senior major championships for women has been so long in the making. The first Senior PGA Championship for men was held in 1937 while the inaugural U.S. Senior Open took place in 1980. For Whaley, however, the long wait by senior women golfers comes as no shock.
"It doesn't surprise me," said Whaley, who in November will become the first female president of the PGA of America. "I'm just happy these championships are now here. When you think about history and you think about the evolution of the game, a lot of things have taken a long time, not just this. And I like to look forward. I don't like to look back. So I'm happy they are here and I hope we continue to do more."