By Marcia Pledger
Renee Powell, who owns and runs Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, is not your everyday golf pro, as evidenced by the honorary doctorate (one of two she’s been awarded) sticking out from behind the big-screen TV on the wall of the pro shop. There’s also a plaque naming her one of Golf Digest’s Top 50 Women Teachers and an award from the PGA as the 2003 First Lady of Golf. And it doesn’t take much researching to learn that Powell was the second African-American woman to play on the LPGA Tour.
Her golf course is different, as well. It was built in 1946 by her father, Bill—the first African-American to own and operate a course in the U.S.—who returned from serving in World War II only to be turned away from local courses. He carved Clearview by hand from an old dairy farm and opened it to all; in 2001 it was named a National Historic Site for “putting the fair in fairway.”
Yet Renee Powell doesn’t speak in the negative. Instead, she’s a proud and optimistic ambassador for diversity in golf.
At Clearview, she goes out of her way to make everyone comfortable, interrupting an interview to greet golfers, black and white, young and more seasoned, including 75-year-old Ted Thomas, who’s been playing the course for 40 years. She tells an 8-year-old boy to work on his putting because his lesson with her will be slightly delayed. Then she smiles as the boy’s mother talks about how she was terrified to pick up a golf club until one of Powell’s programs aimed at women changed everything.
The 71-year-old Powell shows no signs of slowing down. From coaching and organizing tournaments to serving on boards including the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Women’s Golf Journal, her energy seems boundless.
“If you’re going to do something right, or be more than average, you have to apply yourself,” she says, recalling her childhood regimen of hitting 500 to 1,000 golf balls every day.
Two years ago, Powell, Queen Elizabeth’s daughter Princess Anne, and five others became the first women granted membership into the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, ending 260 years of male exclusivity. It was one of her proudest moments, a validation after a competitive career that brought threatening letters, racial slurs, and exclusion from the hotels, restaurants, and pro-am events enjoyed by other players.
The LPGA was founded in 1950, but it wasn’t until 1964 that Althea Gibson broke the tour’s color barrier. Since then, the LPGA has had only seven other African-American players, including Powell.
“Yeah, that’s sort of mind-boggling,” she says. “Most people don’t realize there hasn’t been much change in 67 years.”
She steers the conversation to other subjects, including a golf program she runs for women veterans in Northern Ohio. Powell launched it six years ago as a way of combining recreation and therapy for these women. It’s the only program of its kind, and it’s free.
Continuing to stress the positive, Powell says that women and minorities will be major contributors to the future growth of golf.
“In a game with decreasing numbers, we have to look at areas where there’s a lot of potential. Young people may be the long-range goal, but short-range goals are adults who have never played or are now getting back into the game,” she says. “Remember: Golf is the game you can play for a lifetime.”