William J. (Bill) Powell first learned to play golf at age nine. He later helped form his high school’s first golf team, and did the same in college. While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, whenever he had some free time he played golf on courses in England and Scotland.
However, after he returned home, Powell wasn’t allowed to play on his own country’s golf courses because he is Black.
“If I wanted to play golf, I had to design my own golf course,” recalled Powell, the 2009 Professional Golf Association (PGA) Distinguished Service Award winner. The 92-year-old East Canton, Ohio, native became the only Black to design, build, own and operate a golf course.
He was honored August 12 at a ceremony held at the Pantages in downtown Minneapolis. As he accepted the PGA’s highest annual honor, Powell was greeted by standing ovations from a capacity crowd.
Among the notables recognizing Powell’s achievements were University of Minnesota Men’s Basketball Coach Tubby Smith, former pro football great Franco Harris, and WNBA President Donna Orender. All were touched and inspired by a man who didn’t allow racial prejudices and other barriers to keep him from his “love affair with golf,” which according to Powell first began in 1925.
“A whole new world opened up before my eyes,” Powell said of the day he sneaked away from home as a youngster to see a newly built golf course in the area.
As an amateur, Powell became the first Black to compete in a junior event in North Canton, Ohio, and finished third. At Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, he played in the first inter-racial collegiate golf match in American history. His school won that match and the subsequent rematch.
Powell was “a groundbreaker, a pioneer,” said Wilberforce University President Patricia Hardaway said of the school’s alumnus.
In September 1946, two Black physicians gave Powell financial backing after he was denied a G.I. Bill loan. Adding his own capital, after his brother Berry took out a loan on his home, Powell began building a public golf course.
Two years later, in April 1948, a nine-hole course was ready for play on former dairy farmland. A decade later, Powell bought out his partners and added 52 more acres to build another nine holes.
The 130-acre Clearview Golf Club was fully complete in 1978. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After he was inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 1997, the PGA presented Powell with an honorary membership. In 1999, his membership was made retroactive to 1962, which made Powell a PGA Life Member.
Although he never turned pro, Powell’s daughter Renee was the second Black to compete on the LPGA Tour. “Renee has done something I wished I had done — play golf on the professional level,” said her father.
Last week, Powell became the first Black to receive the PGA Service Award, becoming only the 21st individual to be so honored. Former Presidents Gerald Ford (1991) and George H.W. Bush (1997), Bob Hope (1989) and Jack Nicklaus (2000) are among the other recipients.
Bush and President Barack Obama sent congratulatory letters to Powell, which PGA of America President Jim Remy read aloud as he introduced this year’s winner.
Sitting on stage in a cushy living room chair, Powell proudly told the gathering, “I have played the game of golf for the past 83 years.” He joked while he publicly thanked several individuals and apologized if he forgot a person or two. “Forgive me, I’m 92,” he admitted, drawing a brief round of respectful laughter from the audience.
Then, turning serious, Powell continued: “I am proud of my entire family for sticking with me” in pursuing his dream, speaking of his late wife Marcella, his eldest son Billy (also deceased), daughter Renee, and son Larry. Larry Powell is a member of the Golf Course Superintendents of America and helps operates his father’s golf course.
“Thank goodness that at age 92 he was able to get up there on stage and deliver a wonderful speech,” noted Renee, the PGA head professional at Clearview. “He faced a lot of obstacles, but a lot of things that he has done have been amazing. He was able to endure, and I think that is an important lesson he has taught a lot of us.”
“It wasn’t easy,” surmised Powell, “and it isn’t easy now for a person of color in an industry that is not a minority-oriented sport. But I hope that I have made a difference and will continue to make a difference.”
Harris said, “I’m so happy to see that they [the PGA] recognized Bill Powell for what he accomplished and what he did. It was a lot of years later, but he was able to still be here and enjoy it. It showed pure determination in taking things into your own hands to get things done.”
“Stories like these need to be told and heard by many, not just by the few here,” said Smith of Powell. “It is certainly one that I am going to share with my basketball team and people that I know and come in contact with.”
“He was able to explain a very important story with such dignity,” said Orender.
Despite boasting the world’s number-one golfer, Tiger Woods, who headlined last week’s PGA championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club (and drew huge crowds), golf still appears to be a restricted sport, especially to many Blacks.
“I don’t understand why there aren’t more African Americans on the [PGA] tour, that there aren’t more Tigers,” admitted Harris.
“It [golf] is a beautiful sport, and I still don’t understand why it’s White-only,” added Powell, urging that Blacks play the game and make it their own.
Before leaving for a post-ceremony reception, Powell offered an open invitation to his historic Clearview course: “I hope that the PGA would help [more Blacks] to find it.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record er.com, or read his blog: www.challman.wordpress.com.
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