When Condoleezza Rice entered the University of Denver in the early 1970s, her intended goal was to become a world-class pianist good enough to someday play New York’s Carnegie Hall.
This had been a dream since she first laid her hands on the piano as a 3-year-old growing up in Birmingham, Ala.
But when she attended the Aspen Music Festival between her sophomore and junior year, Rice came to a quick realization: There were far more talented pianists at a far younger age.
She first thought, "I am about to teach 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven for a living or maybe I will play [in a] piano bar or maybe I will play Nordstrom, but I am not going to play Carnegie Hall."
Clearly, a time for a major change had arrived. She told her parents that and they immediately told her to find something quickly, particularly since they were shelling out money for her education.
Rice tried English literature. Nope.
She tried state and local government and wound up interviewing the Denver city water manager, the single most boring man I had ever met.
Then she took a class that would forever change her life. Taught by a Soviet specialist (Josef Korbel) who was from Czechoslovakia, Rice had discovered her true passion (international politics), one that would lead her to the White House as the first female African-American to serve as U.S. Secretary of State.
The 57-year-old Rice, now political science professor at Stanford University where she also serves as a faculty member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a director of its Global Center for Business and the Economy, relayed this story to the 156 players assembled at the 64th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
The guest speaker for the Players’ Dinner on Sunday night at Lake Merced Golf Club, Rice delivered a subtle, yet poignant message to these talented young female golfers, many of whom have aspirations of playing professionally.
Finding your passion in life might take time and it might not come where you expect it.
While some of this year’s field will someday find their way to the LPGA Tour, and a few may become the next Mickey Wright, Annika Sorenstam or Yani Tseng, everyone should prepare for the day when that dream might not become a reality. Just like Rice discovered that not every pianist is cut out for Carnegie Hall, not every young talented golfer will be jumping into Poppy’s Pond or hoisting the Harton S. Semple Trophy as a U.S. Women’s Open champion.
"There are two important lessons to that story," said Rice. "The first is searching for something that you are passionate about. Secondly, it might be something that nobody else would have dreamed of being your passion. Don’t be limited by your gender, your race or your nationality. Just find what you are passionate about. And once you do that, things start to fall into place."
Years later when serving as a Soviet specialist under President George H.W. Bush, Rice found herself on the White House lawn in a helicopter with Mikhail Gorbachev. "I thought to myself, I am really glad I changed my major."
There’s also a sidebar to that story. While serving as National Security Advisor, a phone call came into her office. It was world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom Rice had met at previously at a Stanford University concert. He inquired if Rice still played the piano and if she wanted to play alongside him at a ceremony for the National Medal of Arts.
Rice thought it was a practical joke. "I thought, ‘You and me will jam sometime,’" she told the players and assembled guests, drawing laughter. "[But] it wasn’t a throw-away line. It was one of the great moments of my life because I had come back full circle. Piano was part of my life, but I wasn’t confused. I knew [the reason he asked] wasn’t because I was the world’s greatest pianist. It was because I was the National Security Advisor who played the piano. Again, it was a good idea to change my major."
Rice also happens to be a passionate golfer who only came to the game seven years ago while serving as Secretary of State under George W. Bush. Because of her hectic schedule, Rice would take lessons while on the course. She belongs to several clubs, including Shoal Creek in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., where according to fellow club member and USGA Women’s Committee Chairman Martha Lang, she plays to around an 18 handicap.
"What Martha didn’t tell you is she’s actually seen me putt," said Rice after Lang’s eloquent introduction.
Rice was a good athlete growing up. She was a competitive figure skater through high school and has always enjoyed sports. Earlier this year, she was seen at the Women’s Final Four in Denver watching two of her schools, Notre Dame, where she earned a master’s degree in political science (1975) and Stanford, compete for a national title. Notre Dame lost in the title game to undefeated Baylor.
Rice also serves on the USGA Nominating Committee, which nominates individuals to serve on the USGA Executive Committee.
But one of her true passions is talking to young people such as those gathered at this year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior.
Her messages are powerful and even had some of the parents in attendance tearing up.
She reiterated to the players to try things that are hard because if you can learn to accomplish difficult tasks, it will make you a stronger person under pressure.
She urged the players to learn a foreign language, especially now that the game is so global. Players from 13 different countries are competing this week at the Girls’ Junior.
She urged players to find mentors and not necessarily in places they might expect. Had Rice been told a black woman from the south had no business following a career path to international affairs with an emphasis on the Soviet Union, she probably doesn’t wind up serving under a couple of U.S. presidents.
"Everybody said go for it," she said.
She encouraged the girls to make good life choices. "The more good choices you make, the more options open up to you," Rice said. "When you make poor choices, doors begin to close."
Finally, she told the players to help the less fortunate. Many golfers in this year’s field listed charitable activities that they are involved with on their online media bio forms.
"By assisting others," Rice said, "you become less entitled and more appreciative of the things you have.
"Maybe it’s tutoring a kid or doing something with First Tee kids," said Rice. "Or maybe it’s going to a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve or helping a young kid in a Boys and Girls Club.
"We are tempted to ask why do I have so much. You are privileged to have found something you are good at doing (playing competitive golf). You are privileged to have people around you that are supporting you. Remember, though, it’s a privilege. It’s not something you take for granted. It’s not something that you somehow necessarily deserved. You got here because you worked hard. But a lot of people who work hard never make it that far for a variety of reasons. There are circumstances beyond their control. So try to always stay focused on how really fortunate you are."
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.