HARTFORD, Conn. -Suzy Whaley has numerous memorable accomplishments in her life, most notably qualifying for the PGA Tour’s Canon Greater Hartford Open, now Travelers Championship, and becoming the first female officer and now president of the PGA of America.
The latter helped somewhat in a first for Connecticut, the Connecticut Section PGA hosting a PGA of America national championship. The Girls Junior PGA Championship starts Tuesday July 9 through Friday, and the boys will tee it up July 30-Aug. 2 at Keney Park Golf Course in Hartford. Each tournament will have 144 players compete in four rounds of 18-hole stroke play.
“I’m really excited and thrilled the championships are in Connecticut, and the PGA of America is proud of what the Connecticut Section PGA, the City of Hartford and Keney Park did to make it all possible,” said Whaley, a former longtime Connecticut resident who became PGA of America president on Nov. 9 at the organization’s annual meeting in Palm Springs, Calif. “Both championships continue to reach new heights each year, and they’re important to us because they include young people, and that especially helps to grow the game, which is a major goal of the PGA of America. We hope one of the boys will play in the Travelers Championship someday, and that one of the girls competes in the KMPG Women’s PGA Championship.”
Whaley said she was an advocate for the championships being in Connecticut and is proud and delighted with how the three major entities successfully partnered.
“Tom Hantke (Connecticut Section PGA executive director) and his staff did a heck of a lot of work for it to happen,” said Whaley, who now lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with her husband Bill, a top executive with PGA Tour Properties. “And it’s a major commitment for a club to give up two weeks at the height of their season, but this gives them a chance to showcase their facility to the quality of the talented youngsters competing at the highest level.”
Whaley, who will attend the last two days of each championship, has special rooting interests in the eight Connecticut players who qualified for the events, along with her sister’s daughter, Phoebe Brinker of Wilmington, Del., a junior in high school who has already committed to Duke, which won its seventh NCAA Division I women’s national championship in May.
Whaley played at the University of North Carolina, where her oldest daughter, Kelly, recently graduated as the Tar Heels top player, and on the LPGA Tour in 1990 and 1993. In 2003, Whaley became the first female to reach a PGA Tour event as a qualifying player since the legendary Babe Didrikson Zaharias in the 1945 Tucson Open. She qualified for Connecticut’s biggest sporting event when she became the first woman to win a PGA of America individual men’s professional tournament, the 2002 Connecticut Section PGA Championship. It was aided by her being able to play the course off tees 699 yards shorter than the men she competed against, but in January 2003, the PGA of America announced it had addressed the anomaly with the “Whaley Rule,” which requires all entries at qualifying tournaments to play off the same tees to qualify for special exemptions into other tournaments, including PGA Tour events.
Whaley, 52, is now the director of instruction of Suzy Whaley Golf at the Country Club at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, has won several national teaching awards and is one of the newest additions to Golf’s Top 100 Teachers list.
PGA of America tournament manager for Junior Championships Trenton Blundell said there were several factors in two of the organization’s major tournaments ending up in the capitol of Connecticut.
“The PGA of America chose to bring our Girls and Boys Junior PGA Championships to the Connecticut PGA Section and Keney Park to highlight the fantastic restoration of Hartford’s premier city golf course,” Blundell said. “This championship site also displays the team work between the Section and City officials with the agreement for the Connecticut PGA to oversee the restoration of the golf course. Each of our PGA Sections can create such large impact in local communities, and the Connecticut PGA Section has done a phenomenal job in demonstrating this in the Hartford community.
“And the layout of Keney Park Golf Course sets up well to ensure the competitors will have to strategically place each shot to separate themselves from the rest of the field. The greens contours are very complex, which will definitely put a high priority on putting and missing in the correct spots to keep the ball below the hole. We expect these to be incredibly exciting competitions that will put golf’s future stars on full display. We’re thrilled to be working closely with our Connecticut PGA Section to conduct this year’s Junior PGA Championships.”
Keney Park opened in 1927 with a nine-hole course designed by Devereux Emmet, and the Robert “Jack” Ross-designed back nine opened four years later. In 2014, the Connecticut PGA Section signed an agreement to serve as City of Hartford consultants to help them regain operational ownership of Keney Park and oversee a course restoration to enhance the facility’s level of sustainability. Following a $5 million, 30-month restoration to Keney Park GC and Goodwin Park GC in Hartford, Keney Park reopened for play on May 1, 2016, and the course changes received rave reviews from officials and golfers.
The PGA of America announced the selection of Keney Park GC as host of the championships on Nov. 9 after thoughts of holding the events in Hartford first surfaced a decade earlier. Hantke initiated talks with Kerry Haigh, the Chief Championships Officer for the PGA of America, about possibly hosting one of the PGA’s championships. The Connecticut Section PGA had been one of 10 of the 41 Sections never to host a PGA Championship, Ryder Cup, Senior PGA Championship, PGA Professional Championship, Senior PGA Professional Championship, Assistant PGA Championship or Junior PGA Championship. Hantke also looked closely at the KMPG Women’s PGA Championship when that event began in 2015.
“I’d say it’s been an honest effort on all parties to make this happen,” Hantke said. “It’s just so difficult for a golf club or course in our market that would not only be a good fit for said championship but also to bear the responsibility of what would be expected. With a season as short and as compressed as we have, a course forfeits a significant amount of its prime play-day inventory.
“This is the maiden voyage for our Section with respect to hosting a PGA of America championships, and we cannot be more excited to welcome the nation’s most talented girls and boys and delighted and thrilled that the Keney Park Golf Course fits the bill for all parties concerned. It’s a four-party agreement between the City of Hartford, the PGA of America, the Connecticut Section PGA and Connecticut Section PGA Foundation that’s been a long time coming and is finally here.”
Hantke also has a special reason for the championships to be in the Connecticut Section PGA.
“We’re not only proud that we’ve been chosen to host these prestigious championships, but we’re equally appreciative to be able to showcase the restoration of Keney Park as part of the revitalization efforts ongoing in the City of Hartford,” Hantke said. “It has been one of the original and central purposes to re-establish a first-class golf experience to help lead the way to improving the quality of life.”
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin is also delighted the city was chosen to host such noteworthy events.
“This will be exciting as local spectators will have the opportunity to see some of golf’s brightest future stars play on the Keney Park Golf Course,” Bronin said. “We look forward to these young competitors and their families visiting our City. Golf has a long tradition in the City of Hartford, and these two premier events will add to our story.”
Keney Park is led by PGA Director of Golf Peter Seaman, who has been on the staff since July 2015. The golf course was recently ranked by Golfweek magazine as the No. 2 place to play in Connecticut, as well as tied for first on Golf Inc.’s 2016 Public Renovation list.
Both championships have been springboards for many of the PGA and LPGA Tour’s most accomplished players. Travelers Championship winners Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas have competed on the Boys side, while the list of past Girls Junior PGA winners includes Inbee Park, Ariya Jutanugarn and Lexi Thompson.
Yealimi Noh of California captured the 2018 Girls Junior PGA with a dominating, record-setting performance in which she set records for the third round (64), 54 holes (195) and (264) that produced a four-stroke victory at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Ky., and then won several events before turning pro. Akshay Bhatia of Wake Forest, N.C., became the first two-time winner thanks to a successful defense in the 2018 Boys Junior PGA, which was secured with a greenside chip-in eagle on the 72nd hole at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. Both players teamed up on the triumphant United States team in the Junior Ryder Cup at Disneyland Paris in September.
This year’s tournaments will feature many of the top junior golfers from 36 states and seven countries. Players qualified based on several criteria, including the champions from each of the PGA of America’s 41 section junior championships. In addition, exemptions were earned through the results of top-tier national junior events, national amateur/open events, diversity and inclusion events and other special considerations.
Headlining the girls’ field is Rose Zhang of Irvine, Calif., who followed her 2017 Girls Junior PGA victory with a runner-up last year. Playing as an amateur, Zhang competed in the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open at the Country Club of Charleston (South Carolina), finishing in a tie for 55th and second low amateur. Among those joining Zhang in returning to the Girls Junior PGA will be 14-year-old Alexa Pano of Lake Worth, Fla. (tied for fourth in 2018), Yuka Saso of the Philippines (T6), and Ty Akabane of Danville, Calif. (T9).
Only participants who reside in the Connecticut Section PGA boundaries or belong to a Connecticut Section facility were eligible to advance to the national championships from this area. The Connecticut Section PGA will be represented in the girls’ championship by Julia Kashimura of Watertown, Sophia Sarrazin of Westport, Alexsandra Lapple of Ridgefield and Angela Garvin of Feeding Hills, Mass. It will be a sixth consecutive appearance for Garvin, who won the Connecticut Section PGA title a record-tying four consecutive times in 2014-18, lost a playoff to Sarah Houle last year and finished second two weeks ago.
In the boys’ event, Alexander Gu of Darien, Tyler Woodward of Durham, Alex Aurora of Hamden and Jeremy Yun of Old Saybrook will represent the local section.