For Whaley, it was never about a score

7/25/2003 - Suzy Whaley

CROMWELL, Conn. -- Beaming in a snappy black and tan Burberry ensemble, she walked through the dappled early morning sunshine toward the 10th tee.

Holding hands with her two daughters -- Jennifer, 8, on the right and Kelly, 6, on the left -- for a fleeting moment, Suzy Whaley was not a golfer. She was not a ground-breaking Title(ist) IX activist. She was a 36-year-old mother from nearby Farmington, a club pro with a pretty fair golf game.

Amid all the Annika Sorenstam hype, it is a context worth remembering.

In winning the PGA Connecticut Sectional last September, Whaley became the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event in 58 years. She is not the best women's golfer in the world, as Sorenstam is. Whaley's best career LPGA finish came last week when she placed 48th at the Sybase Big Apple Classic in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Whaley played another stout round on Friday, her second in the Greater Hartford Open at the TPC at River Highlands. She shot an 8-over par 78, giving her a two-day total of 153. That Whaley missed the projected cut of 140 by some 13 strokes is hardly a surprise.

And she didn't quit like David Duval, who withdrew after an opening-round 83. He shot a 13-over score in one round.

This wasn't supposed to be about the number, but in golf -- and particularly with exercises in gender-equity -- it is always about the number. In the days leading up to the tournament, the unofficial over-under on Whaley in media circles was somewhere in the low-to-mid 160s.

For perspective, consider that only one PGA Connecticut Sectional champion in the past 23 years made the cut at the GHO. Consider that the average score of those exclusively male winners in the past 11 years was 75.3. In other words, Whaley's gender had little to do with her missing Friday's cut.

Whaley would not say what her target "number" was, but allowed that if she had been told she'd break 80 both days, "I would have said, 'Good week.' All I can tell you is I'm extremely happy with the way I played."

Not that she's not competitive. She beat 13 men on Thursday and coming into the clubhouse, she said, "The only thing I wanted to know was did I beat one?"

For the record, she beat four men over 36 holes. Gabriel Hjertstedt and Ryan Ouellette both shot 15-over 155s, and Duval and Dudley Hart withdrew. She tied with Mike Springer and David Dell, both of whom also shot 153s.

Whaley consistently demonstrated a winning, self-deprecating sense of humor. In describing her shot-by-shot round, she described a disastrous double-bogey on the No. 15 hole this way: "I hit a great sand wedge, but the sand wedge wasn't the club. I went over the back of the green, tried to play the perfect Phil Mickelson shot, which I don't own. It fell short of the green, it wasn't going by again. Forty feet. Two-putted for a lovely 6."

Actually, when you break it all down, there was an eerie Sorenstam parallel.

Stealing Whaley's political thunder, Sorenstam accepted a berth in the Colonial back in May. Stoked on adrenaline, she fired a 1-over 71 in the first round. The second round, inevitably, was a bit of a letdown. Sorenstam shot a 74 and left quietly after two rounds.

It was precisely the same phenomenon with Whaley -- she came in three shots higher on the second day. When Whaley finished her first round with a resounding 37-foot birdie from the fringe on the 18th hole, realistically, it could never get better than that.

She seemed to be saying as much after her historic first round.

"If I can learn anything from Annika, it would be not to let it be a let-down, that I've made it through that first day," Whaley said. "I'm not saying that's what she did, but to me, from her words, she looked like, you know, like she got that round in. It's hard not to do that, it is hard not to say, 'OK, I've done it,' and to get back up for the next day, to do it just as well.

"If I can do as well as she did it and stay focused as she did, even though we've already done a day -- does that make any sense? -- then that would be great. I want to come out tomorrow with as much focus as I had today."

And that's just the way it went early on. She made pars on her first two holes, the 10th and 11th. She had birdie looks on both, in sharp contrast to her three-putt, double-bogey start on No. 1 the day before. Whaley was playing loose and confident -- maybe too confident.

On Thursday, she correctly erred on the conservative side at every juncture -- until the tantalizing prospect of that birdie on the 18th hole presented itself. At the 12th hole on Friday, she went for the flag with her second shot and screamed it into the thick rough to the left of the hole. Her chip shot sailed 19 feet past the hole and she took a bogey 5.

Whaley had two reasonable birdie tries on No. 13 and No. 14, but couldn't get the ball to drop. The 15th, a gnarly 296-yard, par-4 hole, burned her badly. Her drive was perfect, some 60 yards from the green, but her wedge bounced over the green into more deep rough. The chip back scooted 42 feet back the other way and she wound up with a double-bogey.

After sinking an 11-foot putt for par on No. 16, she threw in another double-bogey on the 17th hole and finished the back nine 5-over. A birdie on the first hole -- her second of the tournament -- brought her back to 4-over par. But then a bogey on No. 2 and another double on the fourth hole sent her back into Annika let-down range. She said that she lost focus on the fourth hole -- "I just wasn't paying attention." The course was playing "way easier" than Thursday, but she "got a little tired at the end of the round."

Her partners, Anthony Painter and Akio Sadakata, were exemplary. They hung back for each of the 36 holes they shared and allowed Whaley to walk onto each green by herself to rousing applause. They putted out on the last green to allow Whaley one last moment to bask in the applause.

She took off her visor, subconsciously smoothed her matted hair, and unveiled a red towel from her bag. It was a PGA Tour towel, the incentive they offer here for signing up for a credit card. It was a not-so-inside joke and the crowd, Whaley included, laughed.

"I was a little sorry on the ninth hole," Whaley said. "I wish I could explain to you how it feels to have people cheering you all day long for two days straight. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world.

"I had the best time. I absolutely loved every minute of it."

Her life was turned inside out for the past seven months and, she acknowledged, it has changed forever.

No, she won't try to play the LPGA Tour on a regular basis, citing her two daughters -- she said, however, she'd be seeking a sponsor's exemption for some remaining events this year. She'd like to do more instructional clinics and break into television commentary. When she plays the PGA Sectional this fall, she'll again play from the front tees. With the rule change that followed her win last year, that means she -- or any other woman playing from the forward tees -- will be ineligible to qualify for the GHO again.

In the end, Whaley carried herself with dignity and class and all the things that are asked of champions. She wore an eternal smile that even three double-bogeys could not dim. She played for herself, her family and her friends. She played for women and their daughters.

"I have grown the game of golf this week," she said. "I set that goal and I feel like I've done it. There were so many young people out there cheering for me. I would ask them, 'Do you play golf?' And they'd say, 'No, but I'm going to now.'

"For me, I think the greatest benefit of the world is every single young girl that was here today, including my own daughters, watched me tee off with two men like it was not anything different than it should be. And I feel like I showed people that you can achieve anything if you just work extremely hard and your dreams are possible.

"My girls know that now."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com