WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA | There is no golf talk allowed at Kelly Whaley’s family dinner table and that’s probably for the best. She’s in her second season on the Epson Tour, looking to find her footing in professional golf after a challenging season in 2021. Her sister, Jennifer, played collegiate golf at Quinnipiac University and has now retired from competitive golf to pursue an MBA. Her father, Bill, is a member of the PGA of America and serves as the National Director of Golf for the PGA Tour Properties Division. And her mother is Suzy Whaley. Yes, that Suzy Whaley.
“I started golf at a young age with both my parents being pros, and it was kind of a requirement for my sister and I to at least learn the game and, hopefully, love it. And that's what happened with both of us,” said Kelly. “Whenever we're taking vacations, it gets really competitive really fast. But we try to keep it separate, especially at the dinner table. It's no golf talk because both my parents are in the golf business and I think all of us are like, ‘Please don't say that word.’ We always try to keep it fun. It gets tense but we keep it light and that's the important thing because it’s tense enough out here.”
Growing up as the child of a parent in the spotlight can be challenging, even more so when your mother is the first female president of the PGA of America and a top trailblazer for women in the game. But Kelly is cavalier about her situation, focusing on just “being Kelly Whaley”, staying true to herself both on and off the golf course. She instead leans on Suzy’s past experience playing professional golf, picking her mom’s brain about how to handle life on tour and leaning on her more than understanding shoulder.
“My rookie year was not easy, and I had struggles out here,” Kelly said. “She's the first person I went to because she's been through it and she says, ‘I didn't play when these girls hit it as far as they do now’ but she knows how hard it is to travel and be by yourself and to play six days a week. She has such great advice and I'm just so lucky to have a parent in that sport.
“To me, she's just Mom. But when I really think about it, it's incredible what she's done. She's a trailblazer for females, and it's great to see not only how she did out here on tour, but what she's done past that. I think that's important, and it's kept me kind of present because there is more to do in the golf world than just play out here. She's one of my biggest role models. I'm so proud to have her as a mom.”
Suzy’s work ethic and love for the game are already well-reflected in her daughter. As well as playing full-time on the Epson Tour, Kelly is a caddie at the renowned Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach, Florida – a course originally built by E.F. Hutton and the host site of the 2021 Walker Cup – that counts Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and PGA Tour players Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson among their high-profile membership. While the caddie playing privileges and ability to brush elbows with some of the best athletes in the world is a plus, Kelly has gleaned invaluable experience during her three seasons as a looper and is applying that knowledge to her own game.
“It has not only helped my game tremendously, but it's helped me get out of my own little world and get experience in what other people are doing. I've learned so many things by caddying there, not only with golf, outside of golf through other people's experiences, and so many life lessons. It's such a special membership there that I've been lucky enough to meet.
“Being a caddie is different from being a player. You almost pay more attention to being a caddie than a player. You look at things that I would never look at playing by myself which is crazy. You would expect yourself to go through all these things, but you don't. It's helped me tremendously on the greens. It's been the best experience. A lot of people always think, ‘You're caddying so how do you have time to train and to get better?’ And I actually am getting better, not only with networking, and socially but with my game as well because I'm learning what to look at more.”
Ahead of this week’s Florida’s Natural Charity Classic, Kelly found herself at Seminole on Monday working the club’s famous Pro-Member, an event that always has a field chock full of PGA Tour pros. But the coolest part of this year’s event for Kelly was watching Nelly and Jessica Korda tee it up and getting to talk with two of the LPGA Tour’s brightest stars.
“The Pro-Member was on Monday which is a really cool experience,” she said. “Nelly and Jessica played this year which was so cool for me to see because they’re idols of mine. Jessica actually won. It's not only cool to see, but you learn a lot from their games. And you think, ‘They're top 10 in the world. What's up with their games?’ It's like centimeters when you're at these levels, so if I can get those little things from them, that's worth every penny. Getting to meet them and pick their brain was really fun.”
Kelly’s now back to having her bag carried at the Epson Tour’s season-opener, packing away her caddie whites to once again don her professional golf hat. But her side-gig is never far from her mind and she’s even more appreciative of what it takes to be a looper week in and week out.
“I know what it's like to be a caddie and I know the high-pressure situations. I know what they're feeling, and I know what I'm feeling. I wouldn't say I'm an easy person to carry for, but I know what they're going through. And I have an appreciation for them for sure.”