Throughout the remainder of the holiday season, we will provide a look back at some of the best content from our writers at Global Golf Post Plus. This article originally published on Feb. 25. Enjoy.
When she received the news recently that Mickey Wright had died, Renee Powell thought again about the friends she made all those years ago on the LPGA Tour and how their numbers gradually are thinning.
Powell’s former tour roommate, Sandra Post, had called to tell her about Wright, which led Powell to call Murle Breer and Kathy Whitworth.
Last Friday, Powell and Whitworth connected by phone.
“I knew Mickey and Kathy talked every week,” Powell said from her home in East Canton, Ohio. “We had a nice chat. I wanted her to know I was thinking about her. I told Kathy at one time we were a big family on tour. You knew everybody’s family. You knew their dogs.”
While Whitworth and Wright are the two winningest players in LPGA history, Powell, now 73, played against them. As the years have gone on, she has become as impactful in her way as the tour legends.
“Renee is a guiding light to me. She keeps me grounded.” – Suzy Whaley, PGA of America president
Powell – she became Dr. Renee Powell when she received an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Andrews in 2008 – will receive the Golf Writers Association of America’s prestigious Charlie Bartlett Award in April, given to a professional for contributions to the betterment of society.
It is one more honor in a life filled with recognition for the work she has done, quite simply, by being herself.
“Renee is a guiding light to me,” said Suzy Whaley, who became the first female president of the PGA of America in 2018. “She keeps me grounded.
“She believes so much in the opportunities in golf although she was someone who had moments when she wasn’t given the opportunity. She wants people to get her passion for the game and she is an incredible leader.”
The daughter of parents who opened a golf course in an all-white neighborhood in the 1940s, Powell dealt with discrimination but didn’t let it keep her from playing professionally from 1967 through 1981. She then used her personality and positive attitude to take the game to others.
Powell owns and operates Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, the course her father, Bill Powell, built as a result of his devotion to the game. She spends her days – once winter’s chill departs – teaching, running golf programs and spreading the game’s gospel with an enduring passion.
“Over the years I have grown to have a greater appreciation for what my parents did and how they did it and when they did it,” Powell said. “Think about the 1940s, a black man building a golf course that’s not in a black community. What they did is such a significant part of American history but a lot of people don’t really know.
“One thing good about the various honors is I can bring more recognition to what my parents did, especially my dad’s love of golf. To be here, I feel my dad here every day. I’m around the spirit of what he did. The first nine holes he put in, he walked back and forth with a hand seeder around his neck. I feel a real sense of obligation and responsibility.”
Powell was the second African-American to play on the LPGA Tour, making her debut at the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open. She was among the first women given honorary membership into the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews and two years ago St. Andrews University named a residence hall after Powell.
She sits on the board of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has received along with her family the Old Tom Morris Award, the highest honor given by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, and she has made more than 25 trips to Africa to teach golf there. In 2001, Clearview Golf Club was named a National Historic Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“It’s the love of the game,” Powell said when asked what drives her. “My dad taught me the game and how to be tough because I ran into a lot of obstacles and my mom taught me about giving back and trying to make lives better. Always being a positive example to others.”
Nine years ago, Powell created the Clearview H.O.P.E. program, a free year-round therapeutic golf program for female veterans, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. It is, Powell has said, among the most rewarding things she has done and it led to a segment about her and the program on CBS’s Sunday Morning.
As Powell talks about her life, she keeps coming back to how much golf has meant to her and her family. Her parents were big believers in junior golf, so much so that Powell said she felt a sense of relief when she played her last junior event as a 17-year-old. She shot 67 that day to beat both the boys and the girls.
On the LPGA Tour, Powell dealt with the reality of the times.
“There were tournaments as a young person they didn’t want me to play because I was a black person,” she said. “My parents would fight my battles for me.
“I was always the only one. After a while, I got used to it. Golf is the kind of sport when I was out there practicing, I’d be by myself because my friends didn’t play golf. I didn’t have anybody saying nasty things to me. The ball doesn’t say anything nasty to you.”
In the 1940s Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, while Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley and Bill Willis did the same in the NFL. Those were team sports, Powell said. The only team her parents had when they started was each other.
By the time Powell got on the LPGA Tour, things were still difficult.
“It was easier in the ’60s and ’70s than it was for them, but I got threat letters and wasn’t served in restaurants,” Powell said. “But they gave me a little bit of a backbone. It hurt me but I looked at the people that came before me and what they had gone through and I knew I needed to continue to move forward.
“None of my friends realized how challenging it was for me until afterward. For women, it was hard, period. To be a black woman it was like a double whammy. Golf is such a mental game. My concentration wasn’t always all that. Sometimes it was making sure that I was safe.
“By being out there and being, hopefully, a good example it helped to change the attitude of some people. After I left the tour so many more things have happened and those have been some of my biggest contributions.
“One of my contributions was just being there.”
Renee Powell is still here, making the game and the people she touches the better for it.
Top photo: Renee Powell at the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History at the USGA headquarters in Liberty Corner, N.J. (Matt Rainey, USGA)
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