Renee Powell: A driving force in golf

A driving force in women's golf

It was a beautiful day for golf on the Clearview Golf Course in East Canton, Ohio, but for these women, being here is about much more than sinking putts.

"You look at that little white ball, it's very little!" said one woman. "And you don't think of anything else when you're trying to hit that ball."

The women are part of Clearview Hope, the first golf program for female military veterans in America."It's freedom," said one golfer. "You can look at your other comrades, your other sister, and you know what she's saying without even saying a word."

These veterans have served in far-flung places like Vietnam, Korea and Iraq, and their service has taken a toll, from sexual assaults to post-traumatic stress disorder.

CBS News special correspondent James Brown asked, "What were the biggest challenges associated being in the service as a woman?"

"I had to work two times harder to get those who were higher-ranking than me to understand that I'm good enough to be there," one vet replied. 

One woman, 73-year-old Renee Powell of the PGA of America, decided to help these women heal. She started the veterans program eight years ago, and is the golf pro and co-owner of Clearview. "Everything that I have done throughout my life has always been connected with golf," she said. "My biggest passion is this golf course that my father began building in 1946."

Her father, Bill Powell, was a World War II veteran who returned home and was denied entry to local golf courses because of the color of his skin. He built Clearview so that Renee and her brother, Larry, would not have the same barriers.

"I grew up here," Renee said. "My dad put a golf club in my hand when I was three years old. And I've been playing golf ever since."

With support from her mother, Renee's father built Clearview on his own, mostly by hand. It took him 30 years of plowing, planting and seeding to turn a former dairy farm into a beautiful, 18-hole public course. Her brother, Larry, has been the head groundskeeper of his family plot for all of his life.

Brown asked him, "What continues to drive you and Renee to do this?"

"When you're born into something, you wanna see things go proper and right, and that's what drives you," Larry replied.

While Larry stayed home to care for Clearview, Renee found she had a special talent for the game. She became a top amateur, and captain of the Ohio State golf team.

Brown asked, "Were there circumstances that you had to persevere and overcome at the collegiate level?"

"I was the top female golfer and amateur golfer in the state of Ohio, but I was never able to play in our Ohio Golf Association Tournament, because they played at private clubs, and I wasn't allowed at the private golf clubs," she replied.

Powell did not let those roadblocks stop her. In 1967, she turned pro and became the second African-American to play on the LPGA tour, where she faced new challenges: "We traveled through the South a lot, and so there were threat letters on my life, or [being] refused at restaurants."

After 13 years on the tour, Powell retired and became an international ambassador for golf.

Why? "'Cause I love the game of golf!" she laughed.

For decades, she taught golf in Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. Powell's contributions have gained her recognition at the birthplace of golf: St. Andrews, Scotland.

She allowed Brown to tag along on a recent visit. "I'm in the middle of writing my autobiography," she said. "The last chapter is going to be about the Kingdom of Fife and all the things that have happened to me here in St. Andrews."

What has happened in St. Andrews is amazing. In 2015, Powell was among the first class of women to gain membership into the most exclusive club in the world, the 265-year-old Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

Aubyn Stewart-Wilson, who sits on the club's membership board, said, "In Renee, the club wanted to recognize her pioneering playing career, her selfless work in pursuit of equality, and also doing so much, particularly for younger generations."

In 2008, Powell received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews, and last year the school made her the first American in its 600-year history to have a residence hall in her name.

"Renee was the person who absolutely stood out for me," said the university's principal, Sally Mapstone. "She represents what is very dear to St. Andrews, which is diversity, inclusivity, and a natural pride in great achievements. She believes in hope, ambition, and thinking about yourself within the context of others."

Even on this trip to St. Andrews, Powell was thinking of others. She arranged for her women's veterans group to travel to Scotland. She surprised them when they arrived to stay in Powell Hall. The group played on the historic old course, and had tea at the university.

Brown asked Powell, "You were unselfish in bringing your women veterans here with you. What are you hoping the takeaway will be going back to Clearview?"

"I know the takeaway's gonna be so positive for them," Renee replied. "And to realize how much they are appreciated."

Back at Clearview, the veterans definitely appreciate being on the first golf course designed, built, owned and operated by an African-American in the United States.

As one member of the veterans' group said, "We wanna keep this going for Renee forever. For her, Larry and Mr. Powell."

      
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Story produced by Alvin Patrick.