Renee Powell on breaking down gender barriers

An undated photo of Renee Powell at Sand Point-Golf and Country Club, Ohio. Picture: Getty
An undated photo of Renee Powell at Sand Point-Golf and Country Club, Ohio. Picture: Getty
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RENEE Powell is one of the first female members of the R&A – 40 years after being denied access to the clubhouse

IT WAS back in the early 1970s, maybe 1974, that Renee Powell first saw the Old Course at St Andrews. An LPGA player at the time, Powell had (naively perhaps) contacted Keith Mackenzie, then secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, to inform him of her arrival.

US golfer Renne Powell receives an honourary degree from the University of St Andrews

US golfer Renne Powell receives an honourary degree from the University of St Andrews

“I went there by train from London,” she recalls. “Mr Mackenzie met me behind the 18th green, close to the Royal & Ancient clubhouse. He was very nice. It was October and it was cold. I had thick clothes on for the trip. So I needed to change before I went out to play. When I asked where I could do that, he was so funny. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘There are no changing facilities for women here.’ So I had to go down the street to a hotel.”

The next time Powell visits the Home of Golf things will likely be a little different and a tad more welcoming. This past week (alongside Dame Laura Davies, Annika Sorenstam, the Princess Royal (!), seven-time Scottish Ladies champion Belle Robertson, LPGA founder Louise Suggs and former president of the women’s committee of the International Golf Federation Lally Segard) the 68-year-old Ohio native was named one of the first seven female honorary members of the previously all-male R&A.

Such status won’t allow Powell to vote on club matters or participate in club medals, but when she next ventures across the Atlantic – hopefully for this year’s Open Championship – amongst other things a conveniently located locker room will be readily available.

A minority within a minority her whole golfing life, Powell has always been something of a trailblazer. The second black woman ever to compete on the LPGA Tour – and the first female of any colour to be head professional at a private club (Silvermere in Surrey) in the UK – Powell is based at the Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio, the first and so far only course in the United States designed, built, owned and operated by an African-American (her father). Throw in the fact that she was also the first African-American female to attain Class-A membership of the PGA of America and that, in 2008, the University of St Andrews made her an honorary Doctor of Laws, and she has quite the résumé.

“Renee may be the game’s most understated and under appreciated ambassador,” insists six-time Solheim Cup player Dottie Pepper. “Her reach is truly worldwide, yet she has never forgotten home or family. She constantly gives back to others in so many ways, from continuing her father’s groundbreaking work at Clearview, to using golf to help rehabilitate women returning from military service overseas.”

Ever since she went to Vietnam in 1971 to run golf clinics, Powell has been involved with US female military personnel. These days she runs an annual programme in which army, air force and marine veterans from Vietnam, Kuwait and Iraq use golf as therapy after suffering injury or post-traumatic stress.

The Powell family’s uniformed link with Scotland goes back even further, however. Renee’s father, William Powell, was stationed here in the Second World War, having sailed over in the Queen Mary.

“My father actually played golf in Inverness during the war,” she says. “For the rest of his life he talked about all the things he was able to do in Scotland that he couldn’t do in the States because of the colour of his skin. It was so exciting for him to go to St Andrews back in 2008. He had never been there before. Edinburgh was as close as he came during the war.

“It was a great thing for him to walk on the Old Course and putt out on the 18th green. Just as memorable was [former R&A secretary] Michael Bonallack taking him into the clubhouse and showing him the office at the top of the building. That was also a very emotional moment for my father.”

Indeed, it was to her father that Powell’s first thoughts went when, two months ago, she first heard from R&A chief executive Peter Dawson. “He would have been thrilled,” she says. “My father educated me about the game. What he achieved – and where and when he achieved it – is testimony to his spirit. He was so passionate about the game and loved it his whole life. For him, it was a privilege to play golf.”

Even more importantly, this latest development in Powell’s eventful life has at least a symbolic significance for a game not always associated with freedom of entry. And she is quick to acknowledge that fact.

“For such a long time women could not be members of the R&A,” she says. “So this is a big step. It sends a great message to golfers all over the world. It is just the right thing to do. I’m so glad things are going to be different. For too long, the game didn’t focus much on the R&A not allowing women, if only because it had been that way forever. But we should have. Women have to follow the rules, just like the men, so it was wrong that a male-only club was making those rules. So things had to change. Besides, it was only a matter of time once Augusta National allowed women to be members.

“My hope is that this will be held up as an example to all the other clubs who host the Open. I know there are three [the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, Royal Troon and Royal St George’s] that still exclude women. I’d like to see them follow the R&A’s lead.”

On a personal level, Powell is clearly moved by her part in the R&A ending its 261-year relationship with mindless misogyny. Throw in golf’s depressingly bigoted record in the matter of race relations – as recently as 1961 the PGA of America allowed only white members, only in 1975 did the first black man, Lee Elder, play in the Masters and only after the Shoal Creek fiasco in 1990 did the PGA Tour institute a rule that tournaments could not be played at clubs where discrimination of any kind was the norm – and her elevation into the game’s most famous club is something of a seminal moment.

“For me, the honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews has always been the biggest highlight of my life as a golfer,” she continues. “But being a member of the R&A is right up there. They are definitely one and two because St Andrews is the Home of Golf. Nowhere else in the game can ever have the same impact. I’m so proud to be one of the first women members.

“It is so important to me that this honour has nothing to do with the colour of my skin and everything to do with my achievements in the game. I’m pretty tough normally. But I wouldn’t be surprised if I shed a little tear when I enter the clubhouse for the first time as a member. I love the fact that the architect of the Old Course is listed as ‘Mother Nature’. At least in one way, women have been around in St Andrews for a long time.”