Mariah Stackhouse: Prodigy par excellence

Like every golfer at the U.S. Women's Open, amateur Mariah Stackhouse placed her ball on the tee at the start of competition. The only difference between her golf ball and the others' were two letters: M and d. The uppercase M stands for Mariah and the lowercase d stands for David, a small guy from the Bible who defeated the giant Goliath. That ritual of inscribing her golf balls rings true for every match she competes in -- the story resembles the life of Stackhouse, a petite 5-foot-2, 17-year-old prodigy.

Stackhouse competed in her first tournament at age 6 against a field of 9-year-olds. She tied for first place. Since then she has amassed 168 top-10 finishes and 99 tournament wins. She's ranked 21st by the Atlanta Junior Golf Association, has a 3.8 USGA handicap and was the fifth-youngest player at this year's U.S. Women's Open. She also was the only African-American in a field of 156 golfers there.

"I was practicing my chipping across the green and Juli Inkster walked by," Stackhouse said, with a smile worthy of a toothpaste sponsorship. "I'm like, 'Wait, that's Juli Inkster!' That's when it hit me that I was playing in the U.S. Women's Open."

Ken Stackhouse, Mariah's father and a partner in the architectural firm Cornerstone Design Group near the family's home in Riverdale, Ga., recognized Stackhouse's talent early and put his recreational golf aspirations aside to carry the bag for his wunderkind.

"When she was 5 years old, I was at the course and she was playing around but hitting the ball so purely," Ken said. "People started gathering behind us to watch this little girl hit golf balls. That's when I knew she had skill and my game began to take a back seat."

The younger Stackhouse has cultivated excellent accuracy on her drives. She demonstrated her prowess during Atlanta sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open in May, when she hit her longest drive of the day on the 18th hole, a 562-foot uphill par 5, to make par and win a sudden-death playoff and earn a spot in the Open.

"Driving is the most consistent part of my game but most of the time I have a pretty good wedge game, also," Stackhouse said.

Stackhouse missed the cut at the U.S. Women's Open, shooting 79 and 84 in the first two rounds. She's currently competing in the 63rd annual U.S. Girls' Junior Championship in Olympia Fields, Ill.-- just one week after the Open.

Besides precision, Stackhouse's top weapon on the course is her mental approach to the game. Her motto is "The most important shot is the next shot," and she doesn't dwell on the insignificant. For a mentally tough player like Stackhouse, being the only African-American at the Open was of no concern.

"When I step onto a golf course, I don't see myself as the only African-American," Stackhouse said. "I see myself as any other golfer just trying to go for a low score."

Stackhouse encourages African-Americans who excel in sports where they are the minority to pursue their heart's desire.

Her father added, "For young black girls who want to play golf, forget about the fact that you're black as soon as you can," Ken said. "There will be challenges far greater than your blackness."

Stackhouse's parents shield her from newspaper articles pegging her as the next Tiger Woods. Their goal is to keep their daughter grounded and focused on academics while they also raise their 14-year-old son, John. In September, Stackhouse will enter her senior year at North Clayton High School in College Park, Ga., with a 4.0 grade-point average. She's verbally committed to enroll and compete in 2012 at Stanford University, the alma mater of golf superstars Woods and Michelle Wie.

With tremendous parental support and personal drive, Stackhouse will have a future as bright as the multicolored Nike Dri-FIT T-shirt she sported during our interview that read "Can't Stop Me."

Truer words were never spoken.

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