To say that professional golfer Renee Powell is an inspirational woman is somewhat of an understatement. Powell was only the second African American woman to play on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, and, after beginning her professional career in 1967, she played in more than 250 tournaments around the world.
Following her time on the LPGA tour, Powell dedicated her life to diversifying the game of golf and in 2008, she became the third American, and the only female golfer to receive an honorary doctorate from The University of St Andrews in its 600-year history.
It is fitting, therefore, that when the University announced that they were going to name two new student halls of residence after inspiring female figures, Powell was top of the list – along with British journalist Katharine Whitehorn.
Speaking to The Saint the day after unveiling a plaque to celebrate the opening of Powell Hall, the 72-year-old was nothing but humble about the accolade.
“When I first found out about the hall being named after me… I just had to try to get my head around it and to understand what I was hearing,” she said. “I was trying to decipher between reality and a dream.”
Revealing her down-to-earth attitude, Powell wa quick to point out that the new building will honour not only her, but also her parents, who she cited as her main role models growing up.
“My father introduced me to the game of golf when I was three years old, so I say that I learned to walk, talk and play golf at the same time. I didn’t really have to fall in love with it because it was part of me – it was part of my DNA.”
In addition to introducing Powell to the game, her father also instilled a sense of determination in the young golfer. The great-grandson of Alabama slaves, Bill Powell battled racism to become the only African-American to build, own and operate a golf course, the first nine holes of which Powell recalls he built “literally by hand.”
As for Powell’s mother, she was the force responsible for awakening a sense of social responsibility in the golfer. “My mum really talked a lot about how you have to give back to society, and you want to leave the world a better world than you found it,” she recalls.
Talking to Powell, it is clear that her parents’ values have had a huge impact on her, and she became visibly more animated when explaining her ongoing effort to follow in their footsteps. “I’ve always tried to achieve even a quarter of what they’ve achieved,” she says, gesturing towards the ceiling while explaining how she is “here – still climbing, trying to get there.”
Despite Powell’s focus on the future, she has already achieved more than many golfers could have hoped for. Early into her teenage years Powell had won more than 30 tournaments, and even after retiring as a professional golfer, she designed golf clothes for a major fashion house in London, commentated on the game, penned articles and coached pupils all around the world. In her words, “golf has been the centre, the nucleus of my entire life.”
In between all of these appointments, Powell has worked on many projects to improve the diversity of golf. She became an International Goodwill Ambassador and travelled to Africa on more than 25 trips to host golf clinics, as well as assisting with projects expanding golf to more youth, women, seniors, minorities, and military veterans.
Although Powell has noticed a better attitude towards diversity than when she was playing, the statistics regarding African American participation in the PGA tour are not as strong as they once were. “There were at one time in the 1970s up to twelve African Americans on the PGA tour and now it’s changed because there’s only two. Tiger Woods and Harold Varner”.
Having faced discrimination from a very young age, the issue of racial diversity in golf is one that is very close to Powell’s heart. At the age of eight, Powell was told by two of her best friends that their parents had forbidden them to play with her because of her colour, and as she progressed through school the issue became even worse.
Recalling one of the worst incidents that she faced, Powell describes how a boy chased her in the playground with a knife during recess. “I ran inside and I told the teacher that was one hall duty and she said ‘Oh, nobody chased you with a knife’ and then she took me and turned me around and marched me back outside and then I heard the door click behind me, and I just stayed on the steps because I was so frightened.”
When asked about how she coped with adversity, Powell explained that golf became her escape. “For me golf was a sort of outlet where I could hit the golf ball, and the golf ball didn’t talk back to you, and I didn’t get any negative feedback. I learned to love playing golf by myself because I guess it was a way of me sheltering myself.”
Looking back at her childhood, Powell is stoical – not dwelling on the struggles that she faced, but focussing on the opportunities that she managed to grasp with both hands. “You go through things” she admits matter of factly, “but in the end things turned out beautifully.”
Among the list of things that turned out beautifully for the golfer is the strong connection that she has developed to St Andrews. Since visiting the ‘home of golf’ for the first time back in the mid-seventies to play the Old Course, Powell has had a number of standout moments in the Kingdom of Fife: in 2008 she became the first female golfer in the University’s history to be bestowed with an honorary degree, in 2015 she was one of two American women initially given honorary membership into the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, in 2016 the University of St Andrews Women’s Golf Club renamed their annual invitational tournament in her honour, and now she has a student hall opening in her name.
Although Powell is from “across the pond,” she is completely deserving of these distinctions, as she has taken every opportunity to embrace St Andrews and is curious about all that the small town has to offer. “It’s a community, and it’s a lovely community – and it’s beautiful! There’s so much rich history and there’s so much talent here, and I like all of that.”
Even looking around the Students’ Association building where the interview took place, Powell asked questions about University life, and recalled her amazement at the Sports Centre, which had recently opened on her previous visit. “I can’t believe everything that’s in there. When I was here last time I actually went up on the climbing wall. That’s when I first met the Principal and she sort of challenged me, and I’m like ‘Okay, let’s see how I get up there.’”
Much to her disappointment, the Principal did not match Powell’s attempts to tackle the climbing wall, but she nonetheless has a massive amount of respect for the Principal, and particularly her efforts to improve the connection between the R&A and the University itself.
Forever passionate about nurturing female golf talent, Powell has become somewhat of an informal mentor and role model to the University of St Andrews Women’s Golf Club, and has made time to meet some of the members later in the day to answer questions and give them some advice.
When asked what advice she would have given to herself at University, Powell cited determination as a key factor to success.
“I would say to follow your dreams… everybody goes through some negative things in life, but we also go through positive things, and there’s the alleys and the mountains, and I think that you just have to stay positive, ” she says, adding that it is especially important to “always choose good friends.”
Her advice is wise, and her attitude has certainly taken her a long way from captaining the Women’s Golf team when she was at Ohio University and Ohio State University. “I had no clue that I would ever come to Scotland, let alone have a building named after me,” she said. “You know, when I was a child and then when I was in college, I never thought about any of that.”
Ever the pioneer, Powell’s latest project is to finish her autobiography – the last chapter of which she is going to call ‘The Kingdom of Fife’ in tribute to St Andrews and the remarkable memories she has of her visits to the town.
More imminently, however, Powell hoped to get outside and have a go at putting on the Himalayas later in the day, admitting that she has never had time to do so before. For their own sake, I hope that there weren’t too many tourists around, because I can’t help but feel that despite her humility, Powell would have no qualms about putting them to shame with her skills on the green.