BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith was preparing for a practice round on the Saturday before the 2013 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club when he noticed a familiar figure hitting balls.
Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State under President George W. Bush who recently had joined Darla Moore as the first female members of the club, had taken off her green jacket and was deeply focused on the practice range. The next day she would join three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, his agent and another Augusta National member for a friendly match.
But Smith witnessed Rice’s passion from afar. She showed frustration over poor shots and adulation over good ones.
“You can always tell somebody’s personality through their golf,” said Smith, who was competing in his fourth Masters as a U.S. Mid-Amateur champion. “She probably hit more golf balls than any of the pros that day.”
Rice, 58, made a 40-foot putt to close that match the following day.
“Awesome,” Mickelson told The Associated Press. “She’s one of my favorite people to be around. She’s so knowledgeable and interesting to talk to. I always learn so much.”
Smith and Todd White echoed those words after spending 15 minutes with Rice during a special gathering at the Country Club of Birmingham prior to Thursday night’s U.S. Mid-Amateur Players’ Dinner, where Rice, a club member and Birmingham native, served as the keynote speaker. Smith and White, members of last month’s victorious USA Walker Cup Team, joined a small group of CCB members, including 1977 U.S. Open champion Hubert Green, and USGA officials – Rice serves on the USGA’s Nominating Committee – in the club’s library for a meet-and-greet session prior to the dinner.
At the Walker Cup four weeks ago, Smith and White enjoyed playing some golf and chatting with Rice’s former boss, President Bush. He was just as ebullient following his latest encounter with a famous American figure.
“I want to play some golf with Dr. Rice,” said White, a high school history teacher. “We just talked about golf. It’s easy to see her passion for the game the way she talks about it.”
Added Smith: “It’s just great to hear her speak. I think if she would have talked about pace of play, everybody in this room would have actually listened. That’s how good she is.”
Rice’s remarkable life was detailed in a short slide show, beginning with her youth in Birmingham and continuing to her college days to her most visible roles as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.
As Rice approached the podium, she received a standing ovation from the estimated 500 attendees.
After thanking the club and wishing the contestants well, Rice told the audience that she came late to golf, not picking up a club until she was 50. Growing up, her true passion was the piano and she hoped to someday play at Carnegie Hall, but not long after she enrolled at the University of Denver, Rice switched majors to international relations, with an emphasis on Russia.
“At the Aspen Music Festival, I met 12-year-olds who learned what had taken me 17 years to do,” she said. “I figured I might end up playing piano bars, or maybe teaching 13-year-olds Beethoven or playing at Nordstrom.”
Rice tried competitive figure skating and later tennis. But it was on a vacation to The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V., with a cousin when golf entered her life.
At the resort, she received her first lesson and became instantly hooked. A new passion entered Rice’s life. When she had free time, which wasn’t often as Secretary of State, Rice visited the course at Andrews Air Force for on-course lessons.
To Rice, golf offered many intangibles. For starters, it was hard and she always enjoyed tough challenges. When you come of age in the then-segregated South and become the first female African-American Secretary of State, no obstacle is too tall.
“When you do things that are hard, which for me is that miserable 40-yard shot to the green, you learn something about yourself,” said Rice, who is currently a faculty member in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and a director of its Global Center for Business and the Economy. “If you are always doing stuff that’s easy, you never learn to work at something and overcome something.”
Rice could relate to the 264 competitors in this year’s Mid-Amateur field. While she doesn’t possess the same talent – “nobody would come watch me play in a championship” – Rice does share the same love and passion for the game. Golf is not something she does for a living or for money, but like the players assembled for this USGA championship, she gains personal satisfaction every time she steps on a course.
“Doing something that you enjoy is one of the most wonderful parts of life,” said Rice. “Golf has given me new friends that I might otherwise never meet.”
Rice has always been driven to succeed. It’s something her parents – both educators – instilled in her from a young age, despite growing up during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. When she was 8, one of Rice’s friends, 11-year-old Denise McNair, was killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, along with three other teens. The 50th anniversary of that massacre was memorialized a few weeks ago in Birmingham.
“Out of great tragedy, people began to recognize humanity, and it brought people together,” Rice said in a recent interview.
Rice channeled those life experiences to become one of the world’s most powerful people. She received degrees from the University of Denver, Notre Dame and Stanford. She became the provost at Stanford and the National Security Advisor under George W. Bush (first term) before being appointed Secretary State in Bush's second term.
That same drive she had in her career carried over to golf, where she carries a 16.4 Handicap Index at Stanford University Golf Course. She told Golf Digest in an interview earlier this year that her goal is to trim her Index to “14 or 15” by the end of 2013.
But Rice also has other goals. She would like to see more people take up the game, especially women and minorities. She understands the life lessons golf teaches. She also loves how the game gives back, especially through charitable contributions.
“I play in a tournament here in Birmingham that has benefitted tornado victims, that has benefitted Children’s Hospital and that has benefitted The Boys and Girls Clubs,” she said. “Golf is very often a game that gives back.”
Rice closed her speech with a message for the competitors.
“I love that golf always celebrates the amateur,” she said. “[It is] the person who plays the game not for riches, not for rewards, but for passion and the love.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.