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Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Updated: February 10, 6:36 AM ET
Challenges nothing new to Powell family

By George J. Tanber
Special to ESPN.com

Obstacles are nothing new to Renee Powell. She was the second African-American to play on the LPGA Tour at a time when blacks were not welcome at some of the hotels where the other players stayed.

Powell took comfort from the support of her colleagues. "We all stay or we're all walking," Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth once told a Utah hotelier who refused a room to Powell.

Bill Powell
For decades, Bill Powell put his blood, sweat and tears into building and maintaining Clearview Golf Club. He created the first nine holes in 1948, but it wasn't until 1978 that he was able to complete a second nine.

Powell gained resolve and resilience from the dual burdens of dealing with prejudice and trying to be great at the game she loved, difficult under the best of circumstances.

So it's not surprising that she has dealt with her latest challenges with aplomb.

Her father, William "Bill" Powell, one of the most revered names in golf, died New Year's Eve at 93.

And the future of the golf course he built six decades earlier -- Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio -- is being threatened by a proposed strip mine adjacent to the links she and her brother, Larry, now operate.

The controversial project -- four years in the planning by Buckeye Industrial Mining of Lisbon, Ohio -- has been gaining momentum in recent months after the local township zoning board approved Buckeye's application. A lawsuit filed by the Powells was nixed by the courts. So real have the mine's prospects been, Renee Powell can almost hear the dynamite echoing across the fairways and see the earth-moving equipment roaring across the neighboring landscape, chasing Clearview's golfers away.

Not only is the future of a golf course at stake but a piece of American history might also vanish, she and Clearview's supporters believe.

After all, her father, known as Mr. P to his many friends and customers, was the first African-American to design, build, own and operate a golf course in this country. The building part, nine holes completed in 1948 on a 78-acre former dairy farm in rural East Canton, mostly was accomplished with Bill Powell's own hands. That began his quiet ascension in the golfing world, which culminated in his receiving the Professional Golfers' Association's Distinguished Service Award in 2009, the PGA's highest honor.

The course, expanded to 18 holes in 1978, eventually landed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Powell built Clearview after he found he was not welcome on some of the courses he wanted to play. He called it "America's course," explaining, "[It's] a course where the only color that matters is the color of the greens."

"My father's thing was you never let someone define you," Renee Powell said.

Once the threat of the strip mine became real, she called a meeting of area politicians and others, seeking help. One stepped forward.

State Sen. Kirk Schuring (R-Stark County) began pestering Buckeye's president, John C. Grisham. Schuring also reached out to Tom Stoner, CEO of Buckeye's parent company, Evergreen Energy of Denver, in an attempt to thwart the project before a mining permit was issued by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Explaining his interest, Schuring said: "I don't know of any golf course located next to an active strip mine. [Of course,] it's more than a golf course. It's a historic landmark. And it represents an important part of our American history."

Renee Powell
Renee Powell is Clearview Golf Club's head pro. She was just the second African-American woman to play on the LPGA Tour.

Some of Clearview's golfers also stepped forward, voicing their opinions and organizing a door-to-door petition campaign in the surrounding rural neighborhoods, where residents are concerned about noise, flying dust and the harm the blasting might do to their water wells.

"I can't imagine the damage that mine will do. It's unbelievable," said Tharin Rabes of East Canton, who regularly plays Clearview with her husband, Dean.

In addition to its historical significance, Tharin Rabes believes Clearview has been unique in other ways, as well.

"We enjoy the course tremendously, and we've enjoyed the family tremendously," she said. "We used to spend hours over there just listening to Mr. Powell's stories. You looked for him every time you went over there. Sometimes, he'd come out and give a pointer if you were having trouble. Can you name another course in the United States where the owner will come out and give you a pointer? There is no place."

Ervin Wilson, another Clearview golfer, is convinced the mine, if approved, would force the course to close.

"I think there's a pretty good chance of it doing so," he said.

Curiously, Clearview's plight is bigger news elsewhere than in Stark County, where the story has received scant attention aside from among supporters. The course itself long has been under the radar, locally, in Renee Powell's view.

"This is a national historical site, right?" she said. "But I think that [most] people here don't really have a clue as far as the significance of Clearview. I get calls and e-mails from all over the world about Clearview, but I don't think the community [sees it]."

Renee Powell recalled how, in 2008, when she became the first woman golfer to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, she was stunned that so many of the Scots there that day were aware of Clearview and knew its history.

Two weeks ago, things began looking up for the Powells. Renee Powell attended the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., where -- in addition to receiving condolences for her father's death from her many friends -- she was buoyed by the support for Clearview.

"Everyone asked about what was going on," she said.

Last week, Buckeye appeared to retreat from the mining project.

On Tuesday, after a call from ESPN.com, Adam Handelsman, a spokesman for Evergreen Energy, said, "Buckeye is currently investigating this area and reviewing the process."

On Wednesday, Schuring talked by phone with Grisham of Buckeye and Stoner of Evergreen. Thursday morning, he felt confident a resolution was near. In addition to the growing story surrounding Clearview, Schuring said he was aware that Evergreen had been attempting to sell Buckeye and that a pending deal fizzled in November.

"This is much bigger than many people realize," he said. "I think it will create a public relations controversy if things continue as planned."

Friday night, after additional talks, Buckeye issued a statement through Schuring: "Buckeye Industrial Mining has decided not to proceed with actively mining in this area at this time. [We] want to make sure that there is a prudent review by appropriate individuals to ensure that the issues of the community are addressed."

Schuring feels confident his side has won.

"The chances of it moving forward are very slim if not nonexistent."

Renee Powell, though pleased with Schuring's effort and progress, is more cautious in her assessment of where things stand.

"I wait and see until it actually happens," she said Tuesday afternoon.

Even if the mining project dies, Clearview faces other challenges to its survival. Although the course receives visitors from all over the country and the world because of its historical significance, that doesn't always translate into a healthy bottom line. The stagnant economy has hurt Clearview, as it has other courses.

Renee Powell, 63, the head pro, and brother Larry, the course superintendent, are the only surviving members of the immediate Powell family. To ensure the course's future, the Clearview Legacy Foundation was established, and Renee Powell figures the foundation needs $6-7 million to uphold the family's ideas for Clearview, which include an endowment fund, new facilities, course upgrades and much more.

"It's about education, preservation and research," she said.

For years, Clearview has hosted clinics for golfers of all ages. There are celebrity golf outings involving Clearview's many friends and supporters, workshops and seminars. The course is a stop on a civil rights history tour.

Renee Powell wants to keep all this going to ensure her father's legacy holds firm.

"We've always worked hard here," she said. "We've felt a responsibility and an obligation to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open. It's a different place. It's a place that welcomes everybody. It always has."

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.