An unexpected gift arrived last December at the public golf course that Renee Powell’s father carved out of an old dairy farm in East Canton, Ohio. Interspersed with holiday mail was an envelope with a Scotland postmark. Inside was a letter of invitation for Powell to become one of the first seven female members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, known as the home of golf.
During her playing days on the L.P.G.A. Tour from 1967 to 1980, Powell, who is African-American, received mail that reflected a nation’s divisiveness. There were many “not so pleasant letters,” as she described them, including signed death threats.
The missives from the Royal and Ancient Golf Club have driven home to Powell that her mailbox is no longer a minefield of prejudice, a reason for trepidation.
“I am just so thrilled when I see mail coming from the R&A,” Powell said.
Her correspondence from the club has included a letter inviting her and a guest to lunch with the club captain during this week’s British Open at the Old Course (she chose to be accompanied by the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris). A package arrived that contained a blue scarf emblazoned with the Royal and Ancient club logo, which Powell will wear proudly when the women take their place next to their fellow male members during the tournament. Joining Powell are Princess Anne and five other notable golfers: Laura Davies, Annika Sorenstam, Louise Suggs, Lally Segard and Belle Robertson.
Powell, 69, could not have imagined such a welcoming vibe in the golf world during the dozen years she played on the L.P.G.A. Tour and was, more times than she cares to remember, denied a room at tournament hotels because of the color of her skin, admitted to restaurants through the kitchen, or excluded from pro-ams because nobody would play with her.
“I think back to the times that as a young black girl playing golf, there were many places I could not play or unpleasant situations when I was finally allowed to play, and now I belong to the most exclusive private golf club in the world,” Powell said.
All her life, Powell has fought for equality and inclusion, and yet, when the day drew near for her to take her place at the Royal and Ancient clubhouse trophy room table, she realized she was wholly unprepared. On her way to the British Open, Powell made a stopover in Silvis, Ill., to attend the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, which ended Sunday. When she dug her passport out of a drawer, she realized it had expired in March.
“Think I need better glasses,” joked Powell, who was in nearby Moline to give a talk on diversity to several dozen employees at John Deere. A secretary at the company made a few calls on Powell’s behalf and was able to expedite her passport renewal.
After the speech, Powell stuck around to play in the John Deere Classic pro-am on Wednesday in a group with Ben Crane, a five-time Tour winner. The three other golfers on Crane’s team were African-American: Marc Howze, a John Deere executive, and his friends Earl Graves Jr. and Billy Dexter. As far as Powell knew, they were the only black players in the pro-am.
It was Powell’s first round of golf this year, she said, and she was nervous. On her first hole at T.P.C. Deere Run, the 10th, the tee captain recited Powell’s credentials, including her Royal and Ancient Golf Club membership.
After splitting the fairway with her drive, Powell said, “I told him not to mention me like that.”
It was hard enough, she explained, to be representing her race and gender. To also stand for the most hallowed club in the world while shaking the rust from her game was, Powell said with a laugh, “a lot of pressure.”
She allayed her anxiety the way she always has, by deflecting the attention. During a wait on one tee, Powell struck up a conversation with a female tournament volunteer while two of her playing partners pulled out their smartphones and scrolled through their messages. She talked to Crane; his caddie, Joel Stock; and the local high school students enlisted as caddies for the amateurs.
“She’s changed a lot of lives with her gentle spirit,” Crane said, adding, “There’s a proverb that you don’t sit up front until someone calls you up, and that’s true of her.”
Since the L.P.G.A. was founded in 1950, six African-Americans have played on the tour, starting with Althea Gibson in 1964. Powell persuaded three of the others — Shasta Averyhardt, Sadena Parks and Cheyenne Woods — to join her last month at her family’s course in Ohio, Clearview Golf Club, for a pro-am to raise money to cover the club’s operational costs.
It was the first time the four had been in the same place. Powell was certain that Gibson, who died in 2003, was there in spirit. The sixth member of the special sorority, LaRee Sugg, the associate athletic director at the University of Richmond, could not attend.
At a dinner for the participants and their guests the night before the tournament, those in attendance included the eight-time L.P.G.A. Tour winner Sandra Post, who met Powell at the 1962 United States Girls’ Junior Championship. Powell, then 16, was the first African-American to play in the event. Post, 14, was the only Canadian. They have been friends since.
Once they were on the tour, Post, the first golfer from her country to earn L.P.G.A. membership, often roomed with Powell. It was partly to save money but also to shelter Powell from prejudice. It amazed Powell how often her reservation was lost or how many times the last room would be claimed in the time it took Powell to walk past the lit “Vacancies” sign to the front desk.
At the motels where they stayed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Post would check in at the front desk so Powell did not have to fret about being turned away. Post remembered going to restaurants with Powell and watching everybody else get served while they waited and waited and waited. Many nights, they got up and left hungry without ever seeing their food.
Post said, “Renee would say, ‘I didn’t want to tell you, but it’s because you’re Canadian.’ ”
Powell competed in more than 250 professional golf events and won once, in Brisbane, Australia. Her best finish on the L.P.G.A. Tour was a tie for fourth at the 1972 Lady Errol Classic. Powell has on occasion wondered how much better she might have played if she had not encountered so many hazards off the course.
“People always ask me, ‘Was it fun being on tour?’ ” Powell said. “I say, ‘Well, if you don’t mind having threat letters on your life, if you don’t mind having people lose your reservation at hotels, if you don’t mind people not serving you, then, yeah, it was fun.’ ”
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s headquarters are next to the first tee on the Old Course, which unlike the club is open to the general public. During the week in September when it was announced that the club’s membership had voted to allow women, Post traveled to St. Andrews and played the course as a guest.
“I never thought my friend would be one of the first seven,” Post said.
She pouted theatrically and added: “And she never told me. I had to read about it like everyone else.”
If Powell shared the historic news, she risked having the membership offer rescinded. The letter of invitation from Peter Dawson, the club secretary, that Powell received the week before Christmas contained a passage that read, “The General Committee very much hopes that you will do the honour of accepting this invitation, which I would ask to be kept confidential at this stage.”
So Powell kept quiet. She told her brother Larry, with whom she runs Clearview, but for almost two months, she held the news from everyone else until she thought she was going to burst.
“It was hard, but I just kept reading the letter over and over and thinking how wonderful it was,” Powell said. “I knew it was important to keep their confidence in me. It was just, wow, a long time.”
“I kept asking Peter Dawson, ‘When are they going to make this announcement? When can I talk?’ ”
Powers of Persuasion
Harris, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was known for being able to run away from people. But the 5-foot-5 Powell has had him in her clutches since their first meeting in 2007. Harris had taken part in a pro-am at the L.P.G.A. major tournament in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where Powell received the tour’s inaugural For the Love of the Game Award. After the ceremony, he introduced himself to Powell, who gave him her best pitch for why he should play in her family’s celebrity tournament later that year at Clearview.
Her powers of persuasion worked on Harris, who made the two-hour drive from Pittsburgh to East Canton. He took a lesson from Powell’s father, William, a security guard for the bearing manufacturer Timken and a scratch golfer who never had a chance to test his talents on the tour because of exclusionary rules that existed until 1961. Harris was awe-struck by William Powell and the 6,478-yard layout that he built nine holes at a time during a five-decade span.
The course, the first to be designed, built, owned and operated by an African-American, is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Harris became a friend of the foundation and is a sponsor of the annual pro-am.
“What Renee’s father did, building this course — to me he encompasses the American spirit in so many ways,” Harris said. “It’s important to keep that legacy going, and it’s great that Renee and Larry have followed him in this industry. People have to know a story like this, know about a man and a family like this, know that people can take things into their own hands and build something lasting.”
When Powell received the invitation to bring a guest for lunch in the trophy room at the Royal and Ancient Club during Friday’s second round, she thought of Harris. He became close to Powell’s father in his final years. If William Powell, who died in 2009, could not accompany her, Harris was a worthy stand-in.
“When she asked me to accompany her to that luncheon, it was one of those moments that I’ll always treasure and remember,” Harris said. “I’m so excited for her. And now to be able to be part of this historic moment, in this capacity, I’m kind of speechless. I’m hoping that the moment doesn’t overwhelm me.”
Harris compared this British Open for Powell to his 1990 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“When they announced I was in the Hall of Fame, my first reaction was, ‘What could be more special than the career that I had and what our teams accomplished?’ ” he said. “I didn’t know if anything could be as good as that. But that moment you put on that gold jacket, it sums up the whole history of the sport. I tell people, I put that jacket on and it was like every player who played this sport was in that jacket.”
Harris and his wife, Dana, have to leave Scotland before the final putt is struck in the tournament because he has a prior commitment Sunday night in the States. But there was no way he was going to miss the occasion of Powell walking through a clubhouse previously off-limits to women in the birthplace of golf.
He nodded vigorously as Post, who was seated next to him at the pro-am dinner, said: “Renee’s career has been so much more than playing golf. In fact, the tour part is very small compared to everything else she’s accomplished.”
On the Front Lines
Powell, whose marriage to a Briton in the 1970s ended in divorce, spent a year working as a club pro in Surrey, England, before returning to her roots. Home for Powell is a two-bedroom apartment at Clearview. Her lack of a commute affords her more time for what really drives her, which is spreading the game to individuals often overlooked by the sport’s governing bodies.
As an African-American woman, Powell has been deployed to the front lines in two wars.
“When you face discrimination, no matter what it is, I think it is hurtful and difficult,” she said. “So I’ve always seen this correlation between prejudices against women and prejudices against people of color. I sort of equate the two together in a lot of ways.”
She added: “My mom was so sweet and so special. She taught me a lot about diplomacy and just being nice to people, and I think educating people by example.”
This summer, Powell is teaching separate classes for women who are beginners, adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and female military veterans. Her lessons, along with her responsibilities associated with the course, keep her busy. Like some of the wildlife in the woods surrounding the course, Powell spends the winters largely in hibernation.
On a Friday night in June, Powell welcomed a dozen women, a few of them newcomers, to her group golf program for military veterans called Clearview HOPE, which stands for Helping Our Patriots Everywhere. The sessions are part technique, part therapy. Since starting the program in 2011, Powell has heard heartbreaking stories from women traumatized by sexual abuse at the hands of men in their units, as well as the women’s experiences in combat.
The week of the United States Open, the 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus visited a veterans’ course in a Seattle suburb for which he helped design a nine-hole extension. After hitting the first shot, Nicklaus expressed the desire to do more such projects “because we’ve got a lot of boys coming back that need our help.”
A lot of women, too. In Powell’s group lessons, the veterans can learn a new game and make new friends with women with whom they share a language, and experiences, that few others can understand. One woman, an Army veteran, said by way of introduction: “I served in a unit with all men. I’m just glad to be around some women.”
The daughter of another Army veteran said, “I like coming out every Friday and hanging out with some of the strongest women I know.”
Powell’s quiet strength has made an impression on golfers who have never met her. Tiger Woods, who won his first British Open title 15 years ago at St. Andrews, said, “What Renee did in her pioneering efforts, people tend to forget it.”
He added, “But those of us who are minorities in the game of golf, who grew up not really being able to play in all the places, we understand their sacrifice.”
Woods said he was happy to see Powell take her place in a select group that includes Nicklaus, former President George H. W. Bush and Peter Alliss, a player turned commentator and architect, as honorary members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.
Woods, who is not a member, said, “I think she truly does deserve it, and it’s been a long time coming.”
Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about Renee Powell, one of the first female members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, misspelled, in some copies, the name of the city in Illinois that hosted the John Deere Classic, where Powell played a pro-am last week. It is Silvis, not Silvas.