Could the lone African-American player in the U.S. Women’s Open be a trailblazer for others? July 2, 2011 By Michelle Hiskey

Georgia teen Mariah Stackhouse, in 2011, joined a select group of African-Americans who have qualified for a U.S. Women's Open. (John Mummert/USGA)

Waiting in the clubhouse for a playoff can be a golfer’s toughest stretch, when time can kill momentum and empty space can fill with distracting voices.

Mariah Stackhouse, of Riverdale, Ga., found herself there on May 16 in the Atlanta sectional qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Open. Having finished in the day’s first group with rounds of 75- 71, she had two hours to kill at Druid Hills Golf Club as the field trickled in.  

The temperature dropped and winds picked up as Stackhouse, 17, relaxed with some favorite music shuffled on her IPod: Rihanna and Dixie Chicks, Katy Perry and Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts and Chris Brown, with some Nickelback thrown in.

Like that playlist, a variety of voices fill Stackhouse’s life. A persistent one reminds her that she is a role model as an African-American, because the top level of women’s golf has so few. In pursuing that echelon, she’s honed a clear message about her identity.  

When I’m on the golf course, I am Mariah, she said. I’m trying to win a golf tournament. Golf is my only focus, and I don’t look at standards or expectations. It’s me, my golf clubs, my caddie and the course. No one else has influence on what goes on. Golf is difficult enough without some other voices going on.

On that May afternoon, by the time she heard she was in a two-woman playoff for the last of three available qualifying slots, the driving range had closed. Stackhouse took a few putts. So what if she hadn’t played the prior three weeks, to rest a sore wrist.

Many times before she had rehearsed for this moment, playing without warming up. The only voice she heeded told her to relax.

Her drive on the uphill par-5 18th  hole was her longest of the day – at a petite 5-foot-2, she counts on accuracy more than distance. Her 3-wood nestled in a perfect spot. She stuck a 9-iron to 7 feet and, with her opponent out of the hole, made an easy par.

With that came a spot in the 66th U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 7-10, and an exemption into her fourth U.S. Girls’ Junior at Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club. Approaching her senior year at North Clayton High School, Stackhouse is one of the country’s top college recruits. (She verbally committed to Stanford in late June.) Her deep national experience  includes helping Georgia win the 2009 USGA Women’s State Team title at Sycamore Hills G.C. in Fort Wayne, Ind. Her youth and timing have drawn comparisons to Tiger Woods.

Could she become, in the women’s game, that first African-American superstar? Absolutely, and don’t we need that? said Martha Kirouac, a USGA Women’s Committee volunteer from Georgia and past U.S. Women’s Amateur champion who has watched Stackhouse develop and saw her clinch the Open playoff. And should we champion that? Absolutely. 

Not so fast, says Renee Powell, who is one of only four African-Americans to have earned LPGA cards. They include Althea Gibson, LaRee Sugg and Shasta Averyhart (who played in the 2010 Women’s Open, has limited playing status on the 2011 LPGA Tour this season and did not qualify for the 2011 Women’s Open).

Powell thinks it’s important to avoid forming a chorus of too-high expectations for Stackhouse.

I think I don’t want to put pressure on anyone in any race, Powell said. She’s one person.

Powell also knows the feeling Stackhouse may experience at The Broadmoor, because she’s the only one, she said. For Powell, choosing whom to listen to was critical.

In 1962 at The Country Club of Buffalo in Williamsville, N.Y., Powell drew record crowds as the first African-American to play in the U.S. Girls’ Junior. USGA executive director Joe Dey sought out Powell and her father, Bill Powell. You know, the only thing the USGA requires is that you have a golf game, he told them.

It was his way of welcoming me to the tournament and showing it was different for me because I was breaking color barriers, and wanted to make sure I was comfortable, Powell recalled.

Five years later, Powell made her professional debut at the 1967 U.S. Women’s Open at the Cascades Course at Virginia Hot Springs Golf and Tennis Club in Hot Springs, Va.

Over the next five decades, barriers encountered by Powell – clubs, hotels and restaurants that refused entry, letters threatening her safety – broke down. Yet at the top of golf, the status quo for African-American women remained.

We have one [LPGA cardholder] off here and one off there, and it’s the same way it’s always been, Powell said. It’s sort of a sad scenario.

Could Stackhouse be a trailblazer for a new generation of African-American girls into the highest echelon of women’s golf? Barbara Douglas, the immediate past chair of the USGA Women’s Committee, is not optimistic. 

There’s no organized effort to help and support minority golfers, male or female today, to not only guide them in the right direction but to understand what they need to move to the next level, said Douglas, who is African-American.

There are a number of programs that introduce the game to kids, but just introducing the game does not create a Mariah Stackhouse. Quite honestly, I don’t see anything out there that will change that.

On the American Junior Golf Association circuit, where Stackhouse competes and serves as a player representative to the board, the 100 top-ranked girls include 11 African-Americans, according to board secretary Lewis C. Horne Jr. This group follows in the steps of NCAA Division I college players such as Wake Forest’s Cheyenne Woods, Tiger’s niece, who was the qualifying medalist at last week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. Horne attributes their progress to strong family support.

Most have sisters they can play with or extraordinarily close relationships with their fathers, he said. Right now we are at the high-water mark of African-American junior girls in golf. Something has inspired these girls, and it may be they all enjoyed watching Annika [Sorenstam] or the LPGA. A lot of them play with Nike bags like Tiger.

Stackhouse’s father, Ken Stackhouse, grew up working at a golf course in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He took Mariah, at age 2, in her stroller to public driving ranges. From the very start, she attracted attention, and figured out how to shut out voices that weren’t helpful.

Everybody had some kind of advice for me, Mariah Stackhouse said. That’s where I learned to be polite but not listen, and play my own game.

What also helped her find her own voice was the community recruited by her father, a partner in an architectural firm, and mother, Sharon Stackhouse, a hospital administrator who, until her daughter took up the game, knew nothing about golf.

To secure instruction, top-flight practice facilities and travel funds for their daughter, they networked with foundations and contacts made through golf. This cross-cultural village’s message to their protégé was that success was measured not by her scores, but her own desire and effort.    

Developing a Mariah Stackhouse is a learning process for the African-American community, which is just starting to understand the benefits over and above just playing golf, said LaJean Gould of Atlanta, whose nonprofit Women in Golf Foundation helps defray Stackhouse’s expenses.

To qualify for the U.S. Open is ridiculously hard, and you have all the money that goes into lessons, physical training, course membership – there’s an awful, awful lot in there. How many parents can afford to make that commitment? Those numbers start to get really, really small…. Regardless of race, all of that has to come together. 

In Stackhouse, that combined effort has produced consistency and perseverance likened to Sorenstam’s. I love to watch her concentration, her focus, said Gould, who will be in Stackhouse’s gallery in Colorado. I’m not thinking African-American when I see her.

The ability to focus, and selectively listen, equips Stackhouse to face the questions asked of her: Does she have the talent, support and sustaining drive to go further than the black women golfers who came before her? Will she one day stand out for her scores only, not her skin color?

Only time – the bane of any golfer forced to wait – will tell. This week, Stackhouse will bring patience and positive self-talk to The Broadmoor. At 7,047 yards, the East Course is the longest ever for a Women’s Open.

I wouldn’t say I look at myself as a pioneer, Stackhouse said. The fact is that I’m one of the first, but that doesn’t change how I play…. Golf has been homogeneous for a long time, but the door is opening, and it’s changing, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Michelle Hiskey is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who has previously written for USGA websites.