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April 2021

Clearview Golf Club a Family Legacy for Renee Powell

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By Steve Eubanks

Under a clear Canton sky, the marker, sturdy and alone, cinnamon brown with gold trim and crowned with the leaves of a buckeye, says it all. Beneath the Ohio Historical Marker heading, the inscription reads: “Golfer and World War II veteran William J. Powell, excluded from playing on many American golf courses because of his race, overcame the indignity of discrimination by creating his own course. Hand-built in two years and opened in 1948, Clearview Golf Club is the first golf course in the United States designed, built, and owned by an African American. The acclaimed course harmonizes with the landscape and bears many design elements of traditional British courses. A triumph of perseverance over discrimination, Clearview represents the historic postwar era when athletes first broke the ‘color line’ in American sports.”

That is the nuts and bolts of Clearview, which still has an active base of players 73 years after it was built. And it still has a Powell at the helm.

That modern-day Powell – the one who can be found giving lessons to a regular cadre of women; the one who is always encouraging young kids to enjoy the game; the one who still, despite worldwide accolades and a level of fame her ancestors would never have dreamt possible, continues to check the reels on the mowers and kick the tires on the carts – provides context and texture to the words on the sign. Renee Powell, one of the most decorated Black women in the history of the game, brings depth to her family’s story. And in so doing, she provides inspiration to the story of our nation.

“My dad, Bill Powell, started caddying and playing the game when he was nine,” Powell said. “He was from a family of overachievers. His older brother, my uncle, only went to high school for two years and graduated as valedictorian. They were the only Black family in Minerva, Ohio, so everybody knew the Powells. Dad found a course that was being built in 1926 that was four-and-a-half miles from their home, so that’s where he worked and played. 
 
“Always a good athlete, Dad excelled at golf. He and his brother started the first high school golf team in Minerva. The football team they played on was so dominant that one season they scored 332 points and gave up zero. Golf was his passion, though. The game seemed to him like the perfect meritocracy. The golf ball didn’t know the color of your skin and the scorecard didn’t handicap you based on race. There were little boxes, just big enough for numbers, and the lowest score won. In the optimism of his youth, Dad thought that life should be more like golf.”

The overachieving apple did not fall far from the Powell family tree. Renee captained the college golf teams at Ohio University and Ohio State before turning pro in 1967. In her words, “I played the LPGA Tour from 1967 until my final event in 1981. And while my presence surprised a lot of people on the outside, the players knew me and welcomed me as a member and fellow competitor. Golfers knew me because I’d been around the game my whole life. I’d played in the U.S. Girls’ Junior and the U.S. Women’s Amateur and qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open, all before joining the Tour. But as only the second African American ever to play as a member of the LPGA Tour, there were some obstacles along the way.

 “The 1960s were turbulent,” Powell said. “We played in places like Shreveport, Louisiana, and St. Petersburg, Florida, where, at times, there were many challenges. But those issues weren’t constrained to the South. There were plenty of obstacles in the North and plenty of places throughout the country where I wasn’t welcome as a Black woman in golf. On the other hand, there were always people who welcomed me, whose open arms made a difference.”

She speaks without malice, just as her father and mother did. Despite a stellar military record and a great reputation in the community, Bill Powell couldn’t get financing for Clearview after the war. He was told, flat out, that there was no such thing as a GI loan for Black men. So, he found two doctors who each put up a third of the money. Powell borrowed his third from his brother, who mortgaged a house to come up with the funds.

No complaints. No excuses. Just hard work and a refusal to fail. 

Those traits were also passed down to Renee. Since retiring from competition, Ms. Powell has been an ambassador for the women’s game and for minorities in golf. In 2008 she became the third American in history to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews. The other two are Jack Nicklaus and Charlie Sifford. And in 2015, when the R&A opened its membership to women, among the first seven invitees was Renee Powell. 

Her history at the birthplace of golf doesn’t end there. The winner of the home tournament for the women’s golf team at the University of St Andrews captures the Renee Powell trophy. And, in 2016, Powell became the first American to have a building named after her at the University of St Andrews, the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world. 

Today, Powell is saving lives, literally. A decade ago, she created Clearview HOPE, an acronym for Helping Our Patriots Everywhere. It is a free program that works to re-socialize women military veterans who often suffer in silence upon returning home from war.

Iraq War veteran Judy Sauerson took up more than a game when she came to Clearview with her fellow servicewomen. She found a new life. “The flashbacks,” she said recalling the days when she felt she couldn’t get out of her home. “I was just afraid to go out; afraid that someone would see and judge me. …I think there needs to be more support for women veterans.” 

“I’m thrilled to be able to give back in this way, to do my little part for veterans,” Powell said. “I think my dad would be proud to see these veterans on the course he built for those who didn’t have anywhere else to go.” 

She speaks often of her parents and the legacy they left through the game she still loves.    

“My parents lived to see the integration they never got to experience in their primes, the openness they dreamed would come about when they built Clearview in 1948,” Powell said. “I can only hope to do as much, to pass along as much to the next generation of golfers as my parents did to me. Yes, they experienced discrimination; yes, they had hardships that rattle the conscience today. But the positive examples they set – examples of perseverance, dedication and positivity, even in the face of blatant unfairness – made possible everything I have achieved and everything I will pass on to others.” 

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