It’s About The Game: Renee Powell And Diversity In Golf

By Renee Powell
August 17, 2011

Renee Powell became the first black golfer to play in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. She was the second African American, after Althea Gibson, to play on the LPGA Tour. (Jay LaPrete/USGA)

 

 

In 1962, Renee Powell became the first black golfer to play in the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. She was the second African American, after Althea Gibson, to play on the LPGA Tour. Powell is now a member of the USGA Girls’ Junior Committee. Sixty-five years ago, her father, Bill Powell, built the 9-hole Clearview Golf Course in East Canton, Ohio, after returning from service in World War II. At that time, courses in the Canton area prohibited African-American players. Clearview is now 18 holes and is owned and managed by Renee and her brother, Larry Powell. She lives in an apartment at the golf course. 

 

For most of its history in the United States, the game of golf has struggled with issues of diversity. When the USGA conducted the second U.S. Open, in 1896 at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island, John Shippen, a professional of African-American descent, was one of the 35 entries. Several professionals threatened to withdraw if Shippen played. USGA President Theodore Havemeyer took a stand. “Withdraw if you must,” Havemeyer said, “but Shippen will play.”

John Shippen thus became the first African American to play in a USGA championship, and he finished tied for fifth. While Shippen was given equal opportunity because of Havemeyer’s decision, golf, otherwise so pure and so greatly reliant on its natural beauty, wasn’t always a level playing field.

The 1960s were difficult times for African-American women golfers. Althea Gibson, the first black golfer on the LPGA Tour, was attempting to check into a motel in one city and was told that the motel didn’t have her reservation. This happened a lot. On this occasion, Marlene Hagge, another professional, had just checked in. Fortunately, Marlene told Althea to get her luggage. “You’re rooming with me,” Marlene said.

In Caldwell, Idaho, we all planned to stay at one particular motel. When I tried to check in, the people on the desk claimed they had no room for me. One of the pros brought Kathy Whitworth into the situation. Kathy told the desk clerk, “Either we all stay, or we all check out.” Suddenly, I had a room. I doubt such distressing circumstances would happen today. Althea and I were fortunate to have so much support from the other LPGA players.

I was very fortunate to grow up during the time of the United Golfers Association, an organization for black golfers. The UGA was founded in 1925 because many in golf did not accept others who had deeper skin tones. At that time, minorities had limited choices in golf courses they could play, restaurants to eat in and hotels to stay in. Still, when I was growing up, I was able to know Joe Louis, Billy Eckstine, Jackie Robinson, Bill Spiller, Howard Wheeler, Charlie Sifford and so many others. The one thing they all had in common was their love for the game of golf.

Doors were also opened by minority women of that era, such as Amelia Lucas, a member of Wake Robin Golf Club in Washington, D.C., along with Ethel Funches, Elizabeth Rice McNeal and Paris Brown. Brown, known as a strong administrator, was the UGA vice president and tournament director. Funches, a five-time UGA national champion, and McNeal, another wonderful player, could have been competitive on the LPGA Tour had they not been lifelong amateurs.

The Chicago Women’s Golf Club and Wake Robin Golf Club were founded in 1937 to advance minority women golfers. Agnes Williams, a person I remember well, did so much to further the interest of minority children in golf and, at the same time, stressed the importance of education. Anna Mae Robinson, another member of the Chicago Women’s club, fought for justice and struggled to establish a hall of fame to house the records and artifacts of African-American golfers. While Robinson and Dr. Adolph Scott worked unsuccessfully to obtain a building, they established a hall of fame, of which I’m a member.

Vernice Turner of Ocean City, N.J., and Clara Peters, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe on Cape Cod, were outstanding players whom I had the opportunity to play golf with and recognize as my friends. The history of these women is precious because while it’s also the history of golf in this country, it sometimes seems to be fading away.

Much has improved over my lifetime in golf. Today, it’s not just a few city-owned public courses that welcome women and people of color. While we’re still not universally welcomed, golf, like our country, is attempting to be inclusive. I’m disappointed to say that the level of minorities in the business of golf is still very low. My own connection to the golf business came about only because 65 years ago my father, with the support of my mother, sought to right a wrong in golf and make a difference. Otherwise, I could very easily still be sitting on the outside looking in at all that golf has to offer.

When I was growing up, there were so many wonderful and competitive minority programs for junior golfers. Every club in the UGA encouraged youth golfers. It was an unstated mission of each golf club to grow the game among the minority population. Unfortunately, when the UGA went out of existence shortly after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, that effort was lost.

Minorities in professional golf have taken large steps backward. If we look at the fact that in the 1970s at least a dozen minority men played on the PGA Tour at one time, and then look at those numbers today, there’s a drastic decrease in numbers. It’s hardly a sign of progress. The same holds true for the LPGA Tour.

The numbers of minority women in the amateur game are beginning to grow as those same women climb America’s corporate ladder. Earlier this year, I met a woman who works for one of the largest unions in the country and she is an avid golfer who loves the game. Our former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is also a dedicated golfer. Former model Beverly Johnson heads to the golf course early in the mornings. And Shelia Johnson, the first black female billionaire, went into the golf business when she bought Florida’s Innisbrook Resort a few years ago. All of these women see golf as a game to be enjoyed by all.

I still hear that golf is an elitist sport, that it is exclusive rather than inclusive and too expensive. I still hear that many do not feel welcome in the game and feel uncomfortable on a golf course. Courses, associations, tournaments and other golfers need to realize that in order for this game to remain healthy, we need to grow our sport and welcome everyone who wants to learn to play. We need to send a different message because people will only participate in activities in which they feel comfortable. From years of experiencing rejection, people realize very quickly if they are sincerely welcomed. People need to actually see people who look like them to gain a certain comfort level when beginning a new adventure.

When a new golfer walks into a golf shop and sees no one who looks like them, it doesn’t send a good signal. When they see that leaders of the golf industry include neither minorities nor women, it doesn’t send a signal of change. It sends a signal of business as usual.

There are so many positive aspects of golf. It’s great for one’s health, for spending time with family and friends, for competing in a lifetime game, for networking and college scholarships. Golf is mentally stimulating and physically challenging. These are qualities that other sports don’t necessarily share, and we need to introduce them to everyone.

The future of women and minorities in the game can be tremendous. Today, we know that less than 10 percent of our U.S. population plays golf. Over the past few years those numbers have continued to decline, but that also means that we have an opportunity to tell the other 90 percent what this game is all about.

We must be creative and craft ways to encourage families to spend more time together on the golf course. The future of the game is dependent on involving those who we haven’t sought out in the past. We must reach out to those who never thought golf was within their reach. We must tell the story of this incredible game, be more proactive and step outside of our comfort level a bit.

My father used to say to me, “Golf is a privilege.” Each day, when I walk out the door onto the golf course that my father built 65 years ago, it’s more clear to me what he meant. I believe so strongly in upholding the traditions of the game – its honesty and integrity – but leaders charged with securing the future of golf must understand that inclusiveness means including all, not only as players but also in the business of golf.  

Golf is the only outdoor sport that one can play for a lifetime, regardless of strength or age or even disabilities. Its future is in the hands of leaders and decision-makers who must act now to ensure the game’s bright future.  

Simply put, nature and golf courses do not see color. There are many colors in nature and a flower garden is the combination of the many colors that make a beautiful bouquet. If we see that the game is not representative of the floral garden of our country, then we need to find individuals who can help us spread the word about this wonderful sport and make it so.

I remember one day looking up something about St. Andrews, that wonderful old course, and where the listing of its architect should have been, it simply said, “Mother Nature.” One way to assure the future of this game we love is to make golf, too, more like nature. 

 

   

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