It must be hard to win on the LPGA tour but imagine trying to excel at golf when the hotel loses your reservation, the restaurant server ignores you, and your so-called fan mail contains death threats.
So, it was for Renee Powell, who played on the tour from 1967-80 even though only one person, Althea Gibson, had ever entered the pro ranks as a black woman.
Powell, born May 4, 1946, never turned away from golf, the game she learned after her father crafted her a miniature club before she was even in kindergarten. William Powell taught her the game on the Clearview Golf and Country Club course he built in East Canton, Ohio, a course that is now on the National Registry of Historic Places, and she continues to spread the gospel of golf wherever she goes.
These days, that includes several community boards, many award ceremonies, and, whenever she wants, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, where in 2015 Powell became one of seven women invited to crash the previously all-male membership.
One snowy night this winter, Powell got on the phone from the family home in the middle of Clearview to reflect on her place in golf history.
LPGA WN: What on earth inspired you to blaze a trail in pro golf at a time when there weren’t any role models who looked like you?
RP: I wasn’t trying to blaze any trail, I was just trying to play the game of golf, which my father taught me early on. There were always lots of obstacles out there, and I had been taught to find a way to the other side of the obstacles. Whether that meant over or under, or around or through, you just don’t give up. You just keep pushing on.
I used to love to read biographies. I’d think of Harriet Tubman, who would go down south and bring slaves out, and she had to go through Ohio and all the way into Canada for freedom, and then she would go back down and get more. And every time she went down, they put a higher bounty on her head. Looking at and reading about what others had done before me, and seeing what my parents had done to blaze a trail in golf, not just for black people but for youth and for women…I was playing the game that I was playing, but because there were a lot of obstacles—a lot of doors that were closed—you just keep your feet moving, moving forward. I suppose that’s what people refer to as blazing trails.
LPGA WN: Who were your other role models?
RP: My role models were my mom and my dad. My dad did something so incredible no other person of color has ever done before or since. In 1946, he designed and built the first nine holes of this golf course by hand. There’s no other person of color anywhere in the world to have designed, built, owned, and operated a golf course. All these years later. We’re talking about 72 years later. And now you’ll never see this. He walked back and forth with a hand seeder around his neck, back and forth, back and forth seeding every fairway that was out there.
LPGA WN: What were the obstacles you faced when you began to play the game for a living?
RP: I’d run into obstacles from racism all along the way, from the time I was 8 years old. There were tournaments my parents had to fight to get me into. I wasn’t becoming immune to it, but it was something I was aware of that I would probably continue to run into.
Sandra Post and I roomed together a lot on the tour. We’d be in restaurants and people didn’t want to serve us because I was there. Reservations were lost at hotels. I’d be stopped on the way into locker rooms, even though I had the same credentials, but those credentials were much smaller than the color of my face. And there were the threats on my life for playing on my tour in my country. I ran into a lot of racism because it was the 60s and there was so much. These were times when black people were still being lynched. I was traveling throughout the south, to Selma, Alabama, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, getting obscene phone calls to my hotel room and things that my white colleagues were not running into.
And it wasn’t just in the south, it was in the north. I remember at one tournament, a family had asked to house two pros. When they found out that I was one of them, they said that I couldn’t stay there, but my so-called friend stayed anyway, and I then decided to no longer friend her.
But I never got discouraged. I think I sometimes got scared, especially when somebody was sending threat letters saying, ‘I’m going to kill you because you’re playing golf.’ I think that would unnerve anybody. I just knew I couldn’t give up, even though a lot of uncomfortable things were happening to me that weren’t happening to the other players and all they needed to do was focus on playing the game. I had to focus on what was going on in my life too.
LPGA WN: Like the game’s not hard enough. Were you forthcoming with your parents about all of this at the time?
RP: I was. They didn’t tell me to come home. (laughing) What they probably thought was that it was more of a scare tactic. My dad fought in WWII. A number of his colleagues had died in a war. And there was so much turmoil in our country. I think it was a thing of ‘figure it out.’
LPGA WN: Did you feel supported by the LPGA? Did you feel you could go to them or did you feel you needed to not complain?
RP: When my life was threatened I did go to the tournament director. And I remember him saying there was nothing he could do. Those were the times. Today, our sport is so diverse, I don’t think anything like that could happen. It’s not an all-white tour anymore.
The LPGA never had a Caucasian-only clause like the PGA, so Althea and I were always welcome. At one time the tournaments were labeled ‘Invitational’ so that they did not have to invite the two of us. Lenny Wirtz did do a great thing as he called a meeting with the players and spoke to different sponsors to say they needed to be inclusive. We did lose some tournament venues, but the LPGA did take a stand to protect all of their members. That is I think a very important thing to say about the LPGA.
Renee with LPGA Founders (front L-R) Marilynn Smith and Shirley Spork pose and other former players (back L-R) Patty Sheehn, Pat Bradley, Kathy Whitworth, Nancy Lopez and Betsy King at the LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix, Arizona.
LPGA WN: What was the highlight of your time on the LPGA tour?
RP: I think that one of the things was going to Japan and playing in US-Japan team matches was a highlight, representing my country against another country.
LPGA WN: Did you win?
RP: I did. Every match!
LPGA WN: Who were your LPGA supporters and heroes?
RN: Wow, people like Murle Breer. When she found out I didn’t have a place to stay, she said, ‘Let’s room together, I have a room.’ And Kathy Whitworth. Her mom came to me and said, ‘Renee if you ever need anything just go to Kathy.’ There was an incident at a hotel where someone told Kathy that they were not going to allow me to stay at the hotel, and Kathy walked out and said, ‘We all stay, or we all go.’ And they suddenly found a room for me.
LPGA WN: What’s been your interaction with today’s black women on the pro tours?
RP: Now there are only three, and we’re talking about from 1950 to now, 2018, that’s not very many. So we haven’t made a lot of progress. I think they probably still run into some issues, because that’s just how our society is. Maybe not as blatant, but, more subtle things.
Renee poses for a photo at her annual charity event with LPGA players Shasta Averyhardt and Cheyenne Woods
LPGA WN: How much golf are you playing these days?
RP: I do more teaching. I do an LPGA Girls Golf program here and I do a program on the other end of the spectrum: I put together a little golf league and golf program for those who have dementia and Alzheimer’s. And I do this wonderful program for women military veterans, which is called Clearview Helping Our Patriots Everywhere (HOPE), and we have all five branches of services represented. It’s a year-round, cost-free program for women veterans. Most of them are dealing with PTSD. I’ve got a couple of Purple Hearts in the program. Then, I do run a golf course.
LPGA WN: Oh, and by the way.
RP: By the way, that’s right.
LPGA WN: Last question. Say you have one more round of golf. Where do you want to play it?
RP: I’d love to be able to play 18 holes of golf right here! I very seldom play 18 holes of golf, and I live in the middle of the golf course. I have a brother, Larry, who is the superintendent here.
LPGA WN: Is there anything else you want people to know?
RP: Probably next year you’ll have a chance to read my autobiography, and then you’ll find out a heck of a lot more.
LPGA WN: Oh, good. What are you calling it?
RP: I’m thinking of Driving for Dignity and Driven by Dignity. It’s very true.