‘I have the opportunity to inspire’

Shortly after graduating from Stanford in 2016, Georgia native Mariah Stackhouse finished 21st at the LPGA Qualifying Tournament. In her 2017 rookie season, the four-time All-American for the Cardinal became the seventh African American player to qualify for the LPGA Tour. In the 70 years of the LPGA, there have been eight Black players on tour, with tennis champion Althea Gibson being the first to join in 1964. Today, the 26-year-old Stackhouse is the only Black player on the LPGA Tour with full status.

This week, Stackhouse will tee it up in her first major of the 2020 season at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Since the LPGA returned to tournament play in July, after a 166-day break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stackhouse has competed in five tournaments, with a top-5 finish at the Cambia Portland Classic.

Stackhouse, who is a KPMG brand ambassador, talked to espnW about shifting her golf goals during the pandemic and making an impact on and off the course.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

espnW: How would you describe your golf game right now?

Mariah Stackhouse: My game is focused. I focus on where I have been in the last few years [five career top-10s but no career victories], what areas have kept me from achieving the goals that I have set for myself and what I can do over these next few months to tighten in on everything. I feel better about my ballstriking than I have in a very long time, allowing me to be excited for a major. Because if you don’t feel like you’re hitting the ball well going into a major, you’re nervous. And so, to be feeling great about how I’m hitting the ball allows me to be very excited to compete.

espnW: The season was postponed in March due to the pandemic. Did your season goal shift as a result?

MS: I was kind of lost. I’m used to traveling at that time of the year. To not have anything on my schedule — to not know when the next event was going to be and what I needed to be working towards — lost is truly the word.

I settled into the understanding that this pandemic is real, this is the situation we’re in, and we’re just going to have to exercise patience. Then I sat and reflected on the last few years. It allowed me to go inward and reflect on what needed to change. Whether that was how I’m working out, how I’m practicing, and whether the things that I’m working on mentally help make me the golfer I want to be. I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to sit with myself and with those questions.

espnW: Grappling with social and racial injustices has been at the forefront of all sports leagues. As the LPGA’s only Black player with full status, what has your support system been like on and off the course?

MS: I have been very fortunate to have great friends and allies around me. I think we look at everything through a social media lens nowadays because of how connected we are. The conversation around racial injustice in golf is probably not the easiest to have because it’s still one of the sports that is lagging in diversity. You can kind of understand the pushback in bringing the racial injustice conversation into the world of sports, and specifically golf. There’s a lot of resistance to it.

When the murder of George Floyd took national notice, that was emotionally a very hard time because, at that point, everyone in this country is forced to look at what’s happening. As a Black American, it was tough. And one of the things — and I smile because reflecting on it makes me feel warm — was that a couple of buddies that I had on tour reached out to me directly. They acknowledged how I might feel and my Blackness — knowing that I couldn’t ignore it. I felt grateful at that moment.

espnW: Since the LPGA season resumed, what does that allyship look like at tournaments?

MS: A friend of mine, Charlotte Thomas, during the week of the Arkansas Championship in August, posted on her social media and created some black ribbons and then sent notices out to other players and said, “Hi, I created these to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. If any other players are interested in having these pinned on them as well for the rest of the event, feel free to reach out to me personally.” Those displays of genuine support and acknowledgment are great.

And in general on the LPGA Tour, we are, very uniquely, already a global tour. We are a melting pot of different cultures. [There are 125 international members on the LPGA Tour representing 32 different countries.] And we have the special ability to get to know one another, embrace various cultures and become that family that travels together. This space that we’re in represents solidarity, working together and unity that the world could strive for as well.

espnW: In the summer, particularly after Floyd’s killing, many media outlets published stories about how you were the only Black player with full-time status on tour. With the LPGA being so globally diverse, how do you feel being the only Black player with full status, especially during this time?

MS: I’m never afraid or uncomfortable talking about the presence of Black women and Black men in the game of golf and the opportunity for growth there. I think at the time that it was happening, a lot was going on emotionally. We understand that this conversation is going to flow into the golf community. And I am at this time the only Black player with full status on tour. At times I feel like it’s my responsibility to lend my voice and be a symbol of representation on the LPGA Tour for this conversation.

I have the opportunity to inspire little Black boys and girls who are interested in the game of golf. I show them that I’m here. I’m enjoying it, and this can be for you too. That’s how I viewed the conversation and being thrust into it. It wasn’t a burden. It was an opportunity.

espnW: What does it mean to you to know that you are inspiring the next generation of Black golfers?

MS: I look at athletes that have come before me in other sports and seeing them excel, what that meant to me, even if I don’t play that sport. I think what Serena Williams means to me. Just understanding what it means seeing someone who looks like you playing a professional sport you hadn’t considered. It increases the spaces that you consider seeing yourself in. And that’s the goal. We want all aspects of the world. We want sports. We want business. We want tech. We want everybody to see themselves in these spaces and know that they can climb the ranks there and excel and they can have a career. That’s what I see these past few months bringing to light and what that has the potential to mean.

espnW: What do you imagine golf will look like in the future? More diverse?

MS: I think at the younger level, I can say for sure that it’s becoming more diverse and I can see it through social media and the parents that reach out to me. There are a lot of young Black boys and girls playing right now.

In August, there was a woman who reached out to me via email, and she’s like, “Hey, I’m a mom. I’m in Atlanta, and I’ve got a little Black girl who plays golf. And a couple of her friends play too. I’m wondering if you’d mind doing a Zoom call and just kind of talking to them?” And I was like, “Oh, of course, yeah!” I said, “I’d love if you’d do it Q&A style so that we can make sure to cover the things that you want me to talk with them about.” And she sent me the Q&A file in advance via email, and the title of the documents said, “Big Sister Chat with Mariah Stackhouse.” I’m going to get emotional thinking about it, but I was just like, “Oh my gosh, because that’s what I am to them, I’m their big sister. I’m a role model, I inspire them.”

espnW: Who inspired your game?

MS: Within the game of golf, I have two people that I aspired to be like — Tiger Woods and Lorena Ochoa.

I don’t think you’re going to find a young Black golfer who didn’t look up to Tiger. It gives them the immediate understanding that they can play this game and be good. He captivated such a huge audience and brought so many eyes to the game of golf.

And then there was Ochoa. I think she might’ve been the only Mexican player on tour while she was playing. And I had the opportunity to meet her. There was a tournament that the LPGA used to have in Atlanta, and I somehow ended up with clubhouse tickets. I go up to fix my plate of food, and she comes up right behind me. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, it’s Lorena Ochoa.” I had a poster of her in my room growing up. She was so warm and encouraging. It was a great moment for me as a junior golfer. I got to meet the person I looked up to the most.

Outside of the game of golf: Serena. To this day, Serena’s probably my favorite athlete of all time. She’s been an inspiration for me as a woman, as an athlete, as a Black American.

espnW: During the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit [on Wednesday], you were on a panel called “Breaking Barriers: Women in Sports.” Do you view yourself as a trailblazer?

MS: I don’t know that I take the time to view myself as a trailblazer often because I have so many goals that I’m still working towards. And so, when you look ahead of you, and you still have so much that you’re trying to achieve, you’re in the journey. It’s a bit hard to reflect.

But I think that it’s moments like the “big sister” chat. And when I’m out at tournaments with fans who come up to me and express what it means to see me out there and how they’re always pulling for me and wanting me to take my game to the next level. I think those are the small moments where I’m able to step back and realize that, yes, I have these things that I’m working on, but I am still here right now and that has meaning. That has a purpose too. And I think those are the small moments where I do get to acknowledge it a little bit and appreciate what that means.


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