Suzy Whaley is many things to Phoebe Brinker: Coach. Mentor. Role Model. And, mostly, Aunt.
Brinker has emerged as one of the top young golfers in Delaware. She’s the only girl to ever win the high school state championship and she’s done it twice, once as an eighth-grader at Tower Hill before she transferred to Archmere where she won her second state title this past spring.
She’s currently a junior at Archmere, and she’s already committed to Duke University on a golf scholarship. And we hear Duke is a pretty good school.
Brinker has also competed in regional, national and international events, and she dreams of one day teeing off in an LPGA tournament.
Behind it all is Whaley, who has already made her mark in the world of golf. Among many other things, in 2003, she became the first female to play in a PGA tournament since the legendary Babe Zaharias in 1945.
And she was recently elected as the first female president of the PGA, a job she will assume in November. Plus, she’s one of the most respected teaching professionals in the business, and the Connecticut resident has attained the distinction as a PGA Master Professional.
Brinker says her aunt’s trailblazing career has inspired her own determination to succeed.“She had to break down a lot of barriers to achieve her goals and that’s one reason she’s the best role model anybody could have,” Brinker said of her aunt. “She gives you confidence because she’s proven you can accomplish anything if you want it badly enough and are willing to work hard enough to get there.”
Whaley started working with Brinker when her niece was just 4 years old, and then the lessons became more serious when Brinker was 7 or 8. Whaley said Brinker was a natural, but, more importantly, she loved playing and she loved practicing.
“You can’t really succeed at something unless you love doing it. And that’s never been a problem with Phoebe,” said Whaley, who is the sister of Brinker’s mother, Tracy. “I think that’s very important for coaches and parents to remember, to make sure that their kids are enjoying the journey.”
Whaley said Brinker’s development as a young golfer was steady, but there were occasional exclamation points that indicated she had the potential to be more than just a scratch golfer.
“The day she bombed it by me, that was an eye-opener,” Whaley said with a laugh. “And the day when she was 12 and called and told me she broke 70, that was exciting.”
Brinker convinced her parents and her aunt that she was serious about her golf career and was willing to make the commitment and put in the time and effort. So, the young golfer worked to take her education on the links to another level.
She showed that by winning those landmark state championships. And she has played well in various tournaments this summer, with her mother handling the logistics and schedule-juggling.
“It can be hectic, but my mom does a great job making sure it doesn’t get too crazy. And my dad travels with me most of the time, which helps me a lot,” Brinker said. “Really, the people who support me make it all possible. They make sure that I have balance in my life.”
Brinker finished tied for 35th in the prestigious Rolex Girls Junior Championship in June in Park City, Utah.
But she really stepped into the big time that same month, when she qualified in Kentucky for the U.S. Girls Junior Championship, a major event that attracted 156 amateur competitors from all over the world. The tournament was played in July at Poppy Hills Golf Club in Pebble Beach, Calif., where Brinker made the cut and finished tied for 36th with a 5-over score of 73-74 – 147. In match play, she eventually lost to Valery Plata of Colombia 2-up.
Whaley said that experience will prove to be invaluable for her niece.
“It’s so important to step out of your comfort zone and see that the world is bigger than your local community or state,” Whaley said. “There are so many good, young female golfers all around the world. And it was good for Phoebe to see that and to compete against them. For her, just qualifying was a huge accomplishment.”
Whaley said Brinker’s national exposure had another important human benefit. “She made some amazing friends and relationships and that’s all part of growing, as an athlete and as a person.”
The Archmere junior will play in two more tournaments this summer season – a USGA event at Kennett Square CC on Sept. 25 with long-time friend and partner Jennifer Cleary (TSD introduced Cleary to readers in April) and an AJGA event outside of Jacksonville, Fla., Oct. 4-8.
In the not-too-distant future, Brinker will be taking a big step forward on a more permanent basis, when she begins her freshman year at Duke. Golf is a big-time sport in the ACC. And Whaley, who played at North Carolina, Duke’s biggest rival, knows that better than most.
“She’s made sure I know how tough that competition is going to be every day,” Brinker said. “She really emphasizes the mental part of golf, as well as the physical part of it. Golf is such a mental game and you can’t succeed until you master that part of it and learn to deal with the highs and the lows.”
Brinker also aspires to something her aunt has already accomplished – playing in the LPGA. Whaley made 26 starts in her career in the early 2000s, including twice at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship at DuPont Country Club.
“That’s always in the back of my mind, that’s always been my goal,” Brinker said of the LPGA. “To get to the LPGA is a dream I’ve had since I was little. If it were to happen, that would be amazing. For now, I’ve just got to keep moving up and getting better every day. And we’ll see how far that takes me.”