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Whaley preparing hard for PGA Tour event

In Connecticut, Suzy Whaley looks out on the snow-covered fairways and can't wait for the snow to melt. For when the white stuff recedes, she'll go out to see something revealed - how much farther she can hit a golf ball.

Whaley, a former collegiate star at North Carolina and now a club pro in Connecticut, has spent the winter building her strength with daily two and a half hour workouts, including a lot of weightlifting. She's preparing to compete against men in a Professional Golf Association event, the Greater Hartford Open in July. To get ready for her date with history, Whaley has turned to her own past. She has made trips back to Chapel Hill to work with sports psychologist Dick Coop, a UNC professor of educational psychology who advises several PGA players. Coop and Whaley have gone over to Chapel Hill's Governors Club where, among other things, they've worked on having the 5-foot-10, 145-pound Whaley get used to the notion of hitting fairway woods to greens on par 4s.

Whaley won't be the first woman to enter a PGA Tour event. Babe Didrikson Zaharias played twice in the Los Angeles Open, in 1938 and again in 1945. Whaley won't even be the first woman this year. Annika Sorenstam accepted an invitation to play in the Bank of America Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas on May 22-25. But Whaley will be the first "ordinary" woman pro to tee it up with men.

Zaharias was an Olympian and multisport phenomenon. Sorenstam may be the greatest women's golfer in history. Whaley is a 36-year-old mother of two girls who spends most of her time running the pro shop at Blue Fox Run Golf Club outside Hartford, giving lessons and giving interviews about being the first (and then the second) woman to compete in a PGA event in 58 years.

"It's been unbelievable," Whaley said of the media attention. "It was extremely heavy when I decided to play and then when Annika decided to play. I do five interviews a day now as opposed to 15."

Whaley said she wasn't bothered by Sorenstam cutting into her instant fame.

"I support her 100 percent," Whaley said. "Maybe she'll call me when she's done (at the Colonial) and give me some tips."

Coop is teaching Whaley to screen out distractions. He wants her to play as though she belongs on the course. And he stresses that despite her new muscle, she must avoid the temptation to keep up by overswinging.

"I wouldn't make it a gender issue," he said of her ability to compete. "I'd make it a length issue."

Whaley didn't go looking to make golf history. As a girl, she thought she would be a skier and went to the University of Colorado hoping to make the ski team. When a lingering high school back injury made that impossible, she transferred to North Carolina in 1985 to play her other sport - golf.

Now the girl who would race downhill is a woman climbing uphill. Way uphill. She qualified for the GHO by winning the Connecticut Section PGA Championship for club pros last September, but she played from tees 10 percent shorter than her male competitors.

At the GHO, she'll tee it where the men do on the 6,820-yard TPC at River Highlands course. That will add 700 yards to the distance at which she qualified and a ton of pressure not to make a fool of herself - and of womankind.

Whaley knows she can't win the tournament. She hopes she can make the cut. But what she wants most is to be an example that people shouldn't be afraid to participate in golf because they can't win.

"For me, (the goal) is to play to the best of my ability and try to enjoy the game," she said. "I hope some young men and women - and particularly women - realize you don't have to be the best out there to love it."

Coop is worried that Whaley may be more distracted by supporters than skeptics. Her husband, Bill, manages the TPC course, and Whaley will have many there who know her.

"I'm trying to get her to find a way to go into focus for 18 to 22 seconds to hit a golf shot. Then she can wave to people," Coop said. He will follow Whaley outside the ropes but won't be able to talk to her.

Whaley won the 2002 LPGA Teaching and Club Pro Championship in Southern Pines. She has made big shots before, but this pressure will be new.

"My plan at this point is to try to stay (focused on) one shot at a time. I want to hit a lot of fairways and greens. I will concentrate very hard on my short game and, obviously, my putting," she said.

For all that resolve, does she ever worry about shooting a 92?

"I'm a club pro," Whaley said with a laugh. "Of course, I have thoughts like that. But you push them away."

No matter how she does, Whaley said there won't be any return trip into history.

"This isn't something that I look to do more than once," she said.

 

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