By Bruce Berlet

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. (October 28, 2020) – This week was supposed to be the most noteworthy in Connecticut Section PGA history, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit nine months ago.

Longtime Connecticut resident Suzy Whaley became the first female elected an officer in the PGA of America when she became secretary in 2014, and the end of her two-year reign as president was to be celebrated with the 104th annual meeting at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.

But when PGA national members were unable to come to Connecticut due to the pandemic, the local Section quickly put together a Blue & Gold PGA Annual Meeting Celebration on Wednesday at Wampanoag Country Club to honor Whaley. Since the Section couldn’t host the annual meeting in person, it did what Whaley advocated, play golf.

So 32 Section pros braved drizzly, 46-degree weather to play a Stableford points tournament for two Hartford-area charities.

“You’re about the only person that I would play golf for on a day like this,” Section president Howie Friday quipped as he stood on the Wampanoag putting green with the other 31 chuckling participants watching a video conference call with Whaley. “But we wanted to thank you for your service in an incredibly difficult year. We wish you could be here, but you’re here in spirit, and we hope to make this an annual tradition.”

Whaley addressed the celebration from a studio near her home and PGA of America headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., as she prepared for a virtual annual meeting that begins Thursday. A new slate of officers will be elected on Friday, when Whaley gives her closing presidential address before becoming an honorary president for the next two years.

“I wish I was there, but thank you, thank you, thank you,” Whaley said.

When elected secretary, Whaley became the first person to win on the first ballot against more than one other candidate, fulfilling the criteria for getting more than 50 percent of the vote.

“My two years certainly didn’t go by fast, and it was my grand honor to be president,” Whaley said.

Whaley, 55, said she had a multitude of memories during her six years in three offices, especially as president.

“I’m really proud of the determination that everyone showed without complaints,” Whaley said, referring to the trying times during the pandemic that altered so many activities, especially tournaments. “And I’m happy that the KPMG (Women’s PGA Championship) began while I was in office. Now I hope your charity event can be a tradition and that I can be there in the future.”

After the video chat, the Section players competed in the Stableford tournament with two teams. Pros included past Section president and Hall of Fame member Gary Reynolds, who made nominating speeches for Whaley before she became secretary and president and wore a hat that included a SUZY 2014 button handed out during her initial campaign.

Reynolds, the head pro at Hartford Golf Club for 27 years before retiring in 2008, was the campaign manager for Whaley’s 25-person team that initially worked to get her elected at the annual meeting in Indianapolis, Ind. He also helped her prepare for her presentations as he had done with other national candidates for office from around the country. The 10-month campaign ended two days before the election with 119 votes, and she received 52 percent.

“There was a video screen that quickly counted the votes, and it took about two minutes for them all to be tabulated,” Reynolds recalled. “When the count came up, it was absolutely magical. It was total elation and confirmation that Suzy deserved it.”

It took Whaley about five minutes to get from the back of a hotel meeting room that included her husband, Bill, and daughters, Jen and Kelly, as she received congratulations from all angles. She earlier was also the first woman to win a PGA individual tournament when she captured the 2002 Connecticut Section PGA Championship, also making her the first since Babe Zaharias in 1945 to qualify for a PGA Tour event, the 2003 Greater Hartford Open.

Whaley’s other multiple victories include the Connecticut Women’s Open three times, and she has received numerous teaching awards locally and nationally and been recognized by Golf for Women as a top 50 female instructor as the PGA Director of Instruction for Suzy Whaley Golf and the Country Club of Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens. She’s also a PGA Master Professional and an LPGA Teaching and Club Professional member who played on the LPGA Tour in 1990 and 1993.

As if that weren’t enough accolades, Whaley was a 2016 Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame inductee, has served on the ANNIKA Foundation Board and PGA Tour Policy Board and is an honorary director for the First Tee of Connecticut. She was honored with the 2017 Betsy Rawls Award from the American Junior Golf Association for service, dedication and contributions to women’s golf, was named a 2015 Sports Business Journal “Game Changer” as a woman leader who has had a major impact on sports business and received the 2015 Margo Dydek Award from the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun for her ability to engage, challenge and inspire while serving as a role model.

When asked to describe Whaley, Reynolds said, “I could go on and on with all her qualifies. She’s intelligent, compassionate, enthusiastic and a great public speaker, all of which have leadership skills.”

In the Stableford tournament, Friday, the head pro at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain, captained the Blue team, and Section secretary Bob Sparks of Fairview Farm Golf Course in Harwinton captained the Gold team. The Blue team won with 651 points, led by John Murphy of Golftec and Brian Quilter of the Black Hall Club in Old Lyme with 52 each and Nick Calabrese of Wampanoag CC with 50. The Gold team had 609 points, led by Ian Marshall, the founder of IAMGOLF, with 54 and John Vitale of Golftec with 50.

Two City of Hartford community-based charities, Compass Youth Collaborative and Active City, each received $5,000 from the Connecticut Section PGA in association with the PGA of America. Compass Youth Collaborative got another $2,000 when the Blue team won the tournament, and Active City received another $1,000 from the Gold team.

COMPASS Youth Collaborative has worked with at-risk Hartford youth for more than 20 years and now serves more than 400 middle school and high school youth. COMPASS partners with many agencies throughout the community including a partnership with The First Tee of Connecticut. COMPASS connects and engages the youth in relationships to provide support and opportunities that help them become ready, willing and able to succeed in education, employment and life.

“It’s amazing that (the Section) made and additional donation to the youth in Hartford, especially since they have a Foundation and support youth golf,” said Jackie Santiago, COMPASS’ chief executive officer.

“There’s so much that you can learn from golf, and life lessons are what we try to teach to the kids.”

“Rather than get upset because the ball ended up on in a bunker, you can pause to regain composure, and try your best from that position. It’s a life lesson that can be taught through the game of golf.”

Active City is dedicated to ensuring that young people in Hartford have access to quality and affordable youth athletic programs. It’s an offshoot of Saturday Hoopsters, which began 30 years ago, and Active City now includes more than 2,000 youngers in the Hartford area in 14 programs. It’s $25 per session for youngsters to compete in baseball, soccer, football and basketball.

Given the adverse impact of the pandemic on youth programming, the work that the charities do is more important than ever.

“Our motto is you live, love and learn in Hartford,” said Active City chairman of the board Nick Lebron, who was part of Saturday Hoopsters. “We’re more than just playing the game. We’re about access, as opposed to just trying to develop stars, though that would be nice, too.”