Whaley Surrounded By Idols Who Shaped Her Role in the Game July 12, 2018 | WHEATON, ILL. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Nancy Lopez (left), the honorary starter this week, greets Suzy Whaley before she began her round. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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When Suzy Whaley stepped onto the grounds at Chicago Golf Club this week, the incoming president of the PGA of America was whisked away to the LPGA’s Corning Classic, nearly 40 years ago. She was a starry-eyed 12-year-old whose mission was to gather as many autographs as possible before joining her parents for lunch.

“My parents hadn’t given me any instructions on autograph-seeking – I didn’t know the rules,” said Whaley. “So I ran under the ropes, up onto the putting green and asked Nancy Lopez for an autograph.”

Whaley idolized Lopez, who in 1979 was coming off a rookie season on Tour that has never been matched. Lopez won nine times in her first season, including five straight events, but landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated had not changed Lopez’s generous nature.

“I’ve told Nancy the story, how she looked at me and said, ‘Well, hello!’” said Whaley. “And I said, may I have your autograph? And she didn’t scold me or shoo me away. She signed my hat, my pairing sheet, she signed anything I had, and she said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you’ll probably get more autographs if you ask for them behind the ropes.’”

It was a moment that Whaley said helped to shape her, and her attitude toward the game. She went on to play on the boys golf team in high school, and she competed on the LPGA Tour for one season before turning to a full-time career in golf instruction. In 2003, she became the first woman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1945 to qualify for a PGA Tour event (the Greater Hartford Open), and in November, she will become the first female president of The PGA of America. Today, she begins play in the championship at 12:21 p.m. CDT, alongside Cindy Rarick and Dana Dormann.

Another one of Whaley’s childhood idols was JoAnne Carner, the eight-time USGA champion who hit the first tee shot of this inaugural championship on Thursday morning, an honor that was appropriate for far more than Carner’s illustrious playing record.

“JoAnne Carner has a special place in my heart because she was one of my idols, number one, but number two, my very first professional event was at NCR in Dayton, Ohio, when I qualified for the [1986] U.S. Women’s Open,” said Whaley. “I signed up late in the afternoon for a practice round in hopes that nobody would sign up with me, because I was so nervous.”

As Whaley prepared to hit, she heard someone call out, and there was Carner, walking onto the tee.

“So I said, ‘Mrs. Carner, go ahead.’ She says, no, no, I’m playing with you. And I thought I would die, like, on the spot. True story, I could not get the ball on the tee. I threw it on the deck and hit driver off the deck and hit it about – I don’t know, I hit it in the air, and she says, that’s pretty good off the deck.”

Carner proceeded to guide the 20-year-old Whaley around the course.

“She told me I didn’t know how to hit a bunker shot, so she threw me in the bunker and taught me,” Whaley said with a laugh. “I thought I knew how to hit a bunker shot, but not to her liking. She taught me shots. She was amazing. She was preparing for the U.S. Women’s Open and she's helping an amateur around the golf course. My grandfather loved her, and she sat with him on a bench while he waited for me. Stories like that you don’t forget.”

It would not be the last time Carner offered her wisdom to Whaley.

“When I was a rookie on Tour, we played a practice round together, and she was still yelling at me most of the time about my game,” said Whaley. “But I cherish her. I cherish what she’s done for golf. I cherish the fact that she’s here. She’s 79 years old, and she is still fighting for women’s golf, and that to me is something that is inspiring. She's paved the way for the rest of us, and I hope to do the same.”

Whaley still has the card and visor that Lopez signed four decades ago, along with the resolve and the stature in the game to carry on Carner’s legacy.

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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