NORTH STONINGTON, Conn. – Suzy Whaley said the weeks leading up to making golf history had been “surreal.”
Hard for anyone to disagree with those sentiments. Whaley became the first female president of the PGA of America on Nov. 9 in Palm Desert, Calif., and begins a two-year reign while returning to work as a PGA Director of Instruction at the Country Club at Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
After a week at Mirasol, she flew to Connecticut for the Connecticut Section PGA Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Dinner, was one of the featured speakers at the Section’s Fall Meeting at Lake of Isles Country Club.
“It has all been so surreal,” said Whaley, 51, the mother of two daughters/golfers who is also PGA Director of Golf for Suzy Whaley Golf in Cromwell, Conn. “I missed coaching and teaching and was fortunate to get involved with Mirasol, which is one mile from PGA of America headquarters and three miles from our house.
“I just feel so incredibly honored and fortunate to be president. The PGA offered me opportunities that I don’t think I can give back as much, but it’s a privilege to try.”
Fifteen Section members, family and friends attended Whaley’s induction, and she was placed in nomination by former Hartford Golf Club member Gary Reynolds, a PGA Life Member who has received virtually every Section awards and also nominated Whaley when she became the first female named an officer (secretary) in 2014. Most of the Section members surprised Whaley when they dressed in the same uniforms and wore Tar Heel blue socks, the color of North Carolina, her alma mater.
“That was kind of cool,” Whaley said with a smile.
So, too, was receiving a standing ovation when introduced for her first public appearance since being inducted as president. The PGA Master Professional should be receiving similar receptions until she and the Section host the national PGA’s annual meeting Oct. 25-30, 2020, at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.
Whaley’s shared the major speaking assignments at the Fall Meeting with PGA of America District I Director Noel Gebauer, who sat alongside Whaley as a record 135 Connecticut Section PGA members attended the action-packed Fall Meeting.
Gebauer represents the Connecticut, Northeast New York and New England sections and attends six meetings annually, plus spends 30 days with the PGA’s Board of Directors. The general manager at the Town of Colonie Golf Club in Albany, N.Y., and other district directors have three-year terms with the mission of serving PGA members and increasing the depth of the game.
“I’m a conduit between the national board and three sections,” Gebauer said. “I always want to be foremost in golf and all the facilities. I try to be as educated as can be and help with education that’s part of employment.”
Whaley said she first thought about running for office in 2013, when her term as a member of the Section’s Board of Directors ended.
“I have a lot of pride and always wanted to be recognized for my body of work,” Whaley said of her decision to make PGA of America history. “I’m very appreciative for what everyone has done for me and support everyone in the room and my family. A lot of people asked if I’d be interested. There were people who saw something in me, and Gary (Reynolds) was my campaign manager. It has been an incredible journey since I became a member of the Section Board of Directors. I don’t underestimate the responsibilities and take everything very seriously.”
Becoming president of the largest sports organization in the world of more than 29,000 members capped decades of notoriety for Whaley, starting with winning the 2002 Connecticut Section PGA Championship that made her the first woman to qualify for a PGA Tour event in 57 years, the Greater Hartford Open, now Travelers Championship.
In 2014, Whaley became the first female to be elected a PGA of America officer in the 102-year history of the association. Now Whaley has joined former U.S. Golf Association president Judy Bell and former LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens as the only women to hold the top position in a golf association.
“This will be the maiden voyage for the Connecticut PGA Section with respect to hosting PGA of America championships, and we cannot be more excited to welcome the nation’s most talented girls and boys,” said Tom Hantke, who is in his 25th year as executive director of the Connecticut PGA Section. “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. 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 said, “Next summer 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. 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 of 2015. The golf course was recently ranked by Golfweek as the No. 2 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 Tours’ most accomplished players. Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Phil Mickelson competed on the Boys side, while past Girls Junior PGA winners include Inbee Park, Ariya Jutanugarn and Lexi Thompson.
John Nowobilski, the head pro at Tallwood Country Club in Hebron for 35 years before he retired last December, added to his long list of notable Section awards when he received the Frank Selva President’s Award from Section president Ian Marshall of Watertown Golf Club. The award is presented “for influence and contributions in significant ways to fund raising to support the Connecticut Section PGA Golf Foundation.”
In the last 16 years, Nowobilski raised more than $250,000 for the Harry Nowobilski Memorial Celebrity Amateur Tournament, which supported the Section Golf Foundation and The First Tee of Connecticut. The event will be revived in 2019 as “The Cat Four-Paw” at Wethersfield Country Club.
“This came as a total surprise,” Nowobilski said of the President’s Award. “I cannot believe it was 16 years ago when I established this event in honor of my dad, who had passed away just three months before it started. To have Frank Selva’s name on this award makes it that much more special. My dad loved the PGA and Junior Golf. I am honored to be recognized for something that was truly an act of love.”
Marshall also edged Ralph Salito (CC of Waterbury) to fill Gebauer’s position as District I Director. Phil Krick (Mohegan Sun CC-Uncasville) defeated Bob Clarke (Timberlin GC-Berlin) and John Dipolina (Lyman Orchards GC-Middlefield) for a three-year term on the Section’s Board of Directors.
During the Section’s Hall of Fame Induction and Champions Tribute, Salito, Mike Carney and the late Joe Curtin joined the Hall of Fame. Award winners were Gary Sassu, Chippanee GC-Bristol, Professional of the Year; George Connor, Connor Golf, Teacher of the Year; E.J. Altobello, Tekoa CC-Westfield, Mass.; Youth Player Development Award; Joe Connerton, Hartford GC, Bill Strausbaugh Award; Steffen, Twin Hills CC-East Longmeadow, Mass.; Horton Smith Award; Jantzen Vargas, Lake of Isles, North Stonington, Public Merchandiser of the Year; Larry Antinozzi, TPC River Highlands-Cromwell, Private Merchandiser of the Year; Evan Lambert, Hartford GC, Assistant of the Year; Paul Banks, Copper Hill GC, East Granby; Jim Mayo, Jim Mayo Golf, Sales Representative of the Year; Westwoods GC, Farmington, Walter Lowell Public Golf Course Distinguished Service Award.