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Suzy Whaley undaunted by her challenge

For Mother's Day her 8-year-old daughter, Jennifer, wrote Suzy Whaley a poem that almost trivializes whatever score she turns in at the PGA Tour's Greater Hartford Open in July.

" 'You help with my homework; you drive me to school,' " Jennifer wrote. " 'You put me to bed; you love me. . . . You're going to be the first woman to play in the GHO, and you're my role model.' "

Suzy has relayed the story to more than one reporter, but her voice still cracks when she tells it.

"It's done for me right there," she said. "That's the best thing I could ever get."

The only thing Jennifer Whaley forgot to mention was the part about her Mom even pushing Annika Sorenstam, the world's best female golfer, to do the same thing.

Clearly, Sorenstam has upstaged Whaley's appearance, jumping in front of her to be the first woman in a PGA Tour event since Babe Zaharias in the 1945 Los Angeles Open, but she hasn't really altered it. A club pro whose game does not compare to Sorenstam's, Whaley is a far greater long shot -- nearly an impossibility -- to make the cut at Hartford. And their stories are very different.

Sorenstam, 32, is playing for ego, curiosity and recognition. She is competing at Colonial on a sponsor's exemption, a shrewd marketing ploy by the tournament's new sponsor, Bank of America. When Sorenstam happened to mention in Orlando in February that she would jump at a PGA Tour spot if one was offered, no less than nine tournaments tried to secure her.

Whaley, 35, who earned the spot with a win in the Connecticut PGA championship, competing from 10 percent shorter tees, is accepting "the chance of a lifetime" and the opportunity to affect life's other Jennifer Whaleys.

"I don't know Annika personally, but from what I've read, I think we're playing for a different reason," Whaley said last week. "I look at it as inspiring young people to get out on the golf course. I can't tell you how many letters I've gotten from young people who think it's great what I'm doing."

Some observers think Sorenstam has removed much of the pressure from Whaley, but it might all be relative. Whaley jokes that before Annika's decision she did "15 interviews a day, as opposed to five now."

But, regardless what Sorenstam does next week, Whaley must handle a course 700 yards longer, with tighter fairways and tougher rough than she ever has encountered.

"What she did, no one can take away from her," said Greater Hartford Open director of marketing Steve Schoenfeld. "We're still going to prepare for a large media contingent and large galleries."

Sorenstam would be disappointed by rounds of 75-75. Whaley, who is probably 40 yards shorter than Sorenstam, only fantasizes about such a score.

"I think for me there's still a lot of pressure because I'm a club professional," Whaley said. "You're taking me out of my regular environment and plopping me into a tour event."

Whaley's life already has been something of a zoo. There's hardly time for what used to be her main gig, teaching at Blue Fox Run Golf Club in Avon, Conn. She played recently at the LPGA's Michelob Light Open at Kingsmill, missed the cut with rounds of 77-73, but was overwhelmed to hear LPGA Tour Players call her "their hero."

Since deciding to play, Whaley has been working with a strength and conditioning coach and toughening her mental game with Dick Coop, a sports psychologist at North Carolina, where Whaley played college golf.

Her story probably will take on more of a regional attraction as the follow-up to Sorenstam. With her husband, Bill, the director of golf and general manager at the GHO course, the TPC at River Highlands, tournament week promises to be quite a Connecticut party.

Meanwhile, Whaley will watch nervously next week as Sorenstam gets her shot. She has that appearance in perspective, too.

"I'd hate to see Annika's career," Whaley said, "based solely on a weekend."


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