On Tuesday, March 20, Kelly Whaley finished her pre-round routine at the final day of the Briar’s Creek Invitational the same way she always does: with five made putts in a row on the practice green.
This day, however, was different. For the first time in over a year, the North Carolina women's golfer entered the final round atop the leaderboard, looking to clinch her first individual title since 2016. She hadn't finished in the top 10 of a tournament since the Central District Invitational in February 2017 — which is emblematic of a collegiate career that's been characterized by inconsistency.
But the story of Kelly Whaley doesn’t start there.
It starts on May 6, 1997, when Kelly was born in West Palm Beach, Fla., to Suzy and Bill Whaley.
For those with a thorough knowledge of golf, the name Suzy Whaley probably sounds familiar. She became the first woman to compete in a PGA Tour event in 58 years when she teed off at the Greater Hartford Open in 2003. Eleven years later, in 2014, she became the first ever female officer of the PGA of America, golf’s most prestigious organization. Now, she’s on course to become president by the end of this year.
Bill Whaley, Kelly’s father, was also a professional golfer who played on the PGA Tour during the 1987 season. Kelly's older sister, Jenn, captained the women’s golf team at Quinnipiac University for three seasons.
It’s safe to say that, for the Whaleys, golf runs in the family. But a legacy like this one doesn't come without a level of expectation.
Kelly remembers a conversation with her mother after a tough round — one that proved to be a turning point in her young career. She was 8 years old.
“I didn’t necessarily like golf when I was younger,” Kelly said. “I would end up basically crying after every round I played. One day my mom said, ‘Just quit.’ She actually told me to quit, but I think it was a little reverse psychology because obviously I didn’t want to quit. It kind of woke me up, and made me think, ‘OK, if you want to be good at this, you’re not going to become good by sitting on your butt.’”
Her mother recalls the story with a chuckle: “It wasn’t just one time. She might remember one time, but it was multiple times. She just wasn’t happy, and I realize there are days when you play a sport where you’re not going to be happy because your performance wasn’t up to what you expected, but for her age and for the level of commitment she was putting in … we just wanted her to enjoy it, and she wasn’t having fun."
"So I told her, 'Enough is enough, you’re not having fun and it’s time to move on and do something else, because there are way too many other opportunities in the world that we can find that you love.'”
But an 8-year-old Kelly insisted that she did love golf. So, she stuck with it, and the story continued. In hindsight, that was probably the right decision.
Within ten years, Kelly had a high school state championship, a player of the year award and three Connecticut Women’s Amateur titles under her belt. It was time for the next step in her journey: playing at the collegiate level.
Suzy had played her college golf at UNC back in the 1980s, so being a Tar Heel was always on Kelly's mind. Not to mention, UNC women’s golf head coach Jan Mann had also kept an eye on Kelly for some time in an effort to convince her to attend her mother’s alma mater.
“I always had a special eye out for her,” Mann said. “I knew early on that she would be a great addition to our team, and I certainly felt like she wanted to be a Tar Heel.”
In 2015, Whaley officially joined the UNC team, and she quickly proved that she belonged. She finished her first season with the second-best stroke average on the team at 75.32, and posted her best finish of the year by tying for 10th at the ACC Championships.
She also began to grow close with her teammates. Bryana Nguyen is Whaley's housemate, and one of the first people Whaley met on the team. The two played together in an amateur event back in 2013, and Nguyen, who had already committed to UNC at that point, spent much of the round talking about the university.
“She always tells me that whenever she thinks about when she committed here, that it’s because of our round together in junior golf,” Nguyen said.
Now, five years later, Whaley has become one of the leaders on the team, albeit in her own unique way.
“I think she’s a great teammate,” Nguyen said. “She’s always there for anyone who needs her. She might not be the most vocal leader… but we work really well together because she might have a great idea, but might not want to vocalize it, so I can tell the team and coaches what she thinks.”
“She’s definitely a little bit quieter,” teammate Brynn Walker added. “But when she does say something, it’s usually pretty meaningful.”
In her three years at UNC, Whaley has experienced her fair share of ups and downs. After a promising first season, and her first individual victory as a sophomore, she appeared primed for success as a junior. However, she has struggled with both her game and her confidence at times this season, and her best finish before Briar’s Creek was a 14th-place finish at the Entrada Classic.
Two weeks ago, at the Darius Rucker Invitational, Whaley finished at 19 over par — her worst score of the season. Afterward, she looked to her teammate Walker for guidance.
"I said, ‘When is this team win, when is this individual win going to happen for us again?’" Whaley recalled. "She said, ‘Once you get out of your own head, and once you believe in yourself and your ability, it’s going to come.' And I think that really stuck with me.”
So, on Tuesday, March 20, when Kelly made five putts in a row on the practice green before walking to the first tee — 18 holes away from her first victory in what seemed like ages — she kept some advice from her mom at the back of her mind.
“She always says to have no fear when you’re out there,” Kelly said, “Because fear can hold you back. Having no doubt is what she always says to me before I play, and just believing in yourself and knowing that if you do doubt yourself, it won’t be the best outcome.”
That fearless mentality resulted in a three-under-par final round, enough to clinch the individual victory by five strokes over second place, and the team victory for UNC by six strokes.
“It was so great,” Suzy said of her daughter's win. “It’s just tremendous to watch your children play competitive golf. I’m grateful to have the chance to be with them, whether they play poorly or play great, and for us that’s the way we look at it. So to have her win and be able to celebrate with her, and the team win on top of that, was something I’ll never forget.”
On Tuesday, March 20, as winter turned into spring and her doubt turned into belief, Kelly Whaley added another accomplishment to her family's legacy.