Stackhouse poised to make history
A 4-year-old black girl is watching the Golf Channel with her father. "Daddy when I get big," she says, "I'm going to be little and in that TV."
Even then Mariah Stackhouse could envision herself playing against the best women golfers in the world. She was too young to know that at that time only three black women had ever held status on the LPGA Tour, an organization founded in 1950.
No one looked like little Mariah inside that TV.
Mariah's father, Ken Stackhouse, an architect, had tried to push his daughter into tennis, which had Venus and Serena Williams as powerful role models for black girls.
But little Mariah would develop into a golfer. She was 14 years old when she won the 2008 Georgia Women's Amateur, the youngest to ever capture that event in the 84-year history of the tournament.
Now at the age of 20, Stackhouse, a Stanford sophomore, is making history again as the first African-American woman to compete in the Curtis Cup. The three-day biennial women's amateur match play competition pits the United States against Great Britain and Ireland and begins on June 6 at the St. Louis (Mo.) Country Club.
Soon, aspiring 4-year-old black female golfers could begin seeing someone that looks like them regularly on golf telecasts.
"It's not my goal to ever be the first African-American to do something," said Stackhouse, who grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Riverdale. "I just want to be as good as I can be.
"But I also appreciate the fact that there is some other African-American girl out there interested in golf and I can be a source of inspiration and show her that she shouldn't feel left out. It always helps to see somebody like you doing something to make it believable. If I can inspire some other young girl, that makes me happy."
Black women have always played competitive golf, but their male counterparts have garnered most of the attention.
In 1956, Ann Gregory played in the U.S. Women's Amateur, becoming the first black woman to play in a USGA national championship. Following the end of her illustrious tennis career, Althea Gibson integrated the LPGA Tour in 1963. Four years later, Renee Powell joined the tour.
Then it would be another 28 years before another black woman, LaRee Sugg, competed on the LPGA Tour. After Sugg fell off the tour for good in 2001, another black woman didn't come along until Shasta Averyhardt earned conditional status in 2011.
In February, Cheyenne Woods, a niece of Tiger Woods, won the Australian Ladies Masters on the Ladies European Tour. But so far she has not qualified for the LPGA Tour. Presently, there are no black women on the game's leading women's tour.
Stackhouse has the potential to be better than all these pioneering women and the future of women's golf, igniting the growth of the game among groups that didn't previously view it as a viable option.
Through two seasons at Stanford, Stackhouse has already won four events, including the Peg Barnard Invitational at Stanford during her freshman year. In that event she flirted with a 59, shooting a 9-under 26 on the front nine en route to a course-record 10-under 61 at the Stanford Golf Course, setting an NCAA scoring record.
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Chan Reeves, the head of instruction at the Atlanta Athletic Club, has been Stackhouse's teacher since she was 9. When he initially balked at working with someone that age, believing she was too young, Stackhouse's dad convinced Reeves to work with his daughter by showing him the child's two-page résumé of tournaments.
"Mariah was just always ahead of things in terms of her development in the game," said Reeves, a former Georgia Tech golfer. "I worked on things with Mariah when she was 11 that I worked on with 13- and 14-year-olds. I think she could play the tour right now."
Yet Reeves is more impressed by Stackhouse as a person than he is with her prowess as a golfer.
"Mariah has always been well rounded," he said. "She's never been one that just did golf. She has a lot of friends and she is very social.
"Education is important for her and that's why she is at Stanford. She has two more years of college golf and there is no telling how good she is going to be."
Renee Powell, who played the LPGA through the late 1960s and 1970s, doesn't personally know Stackhouse, but there are few people in a better position than Powell to lend some perspective on this young woman.
In 1946, Powell's father, Bill Powell, built the Clearview Golf Course in East Canton, Ohio. The elder Powell, who died in 2009, was the first African-American to design, build and own a golf course in the United States.
Renee Powell got her start in the junior tournaments on the mostly-black United Golf Association, where she got to know Gregory as well as black male pros like Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder.
In 1962, when she was 16, Renee Powell became the first African-American girl to play in the U.S. Girls' Junior. And today, she is one of only two African-American female members out of 27,000 PGA of America professionals. The other one is Maulana Dotch, the head pro at the Cedar Crest Golf Course in Dallas.
Renee Powell believes that Stackhouse will be a great asset to the U.S. Curtis Cup team, but she is skeptical about the impact that her historic appearance could have on growing the game for minorities.
"Until the media starts doing more about women's golf, the public is not going to know much about African-American women golfers like Mariah," Powell said. "How are we going to get the word out that she is even playing in the Curtis Cup for the masses to see?"
Yet the 68-year-old Powell acknowledges the progress from her youth, when there were only a handful of golf courses in most major U.S. cities that were open to African-Americans. Still, she is frustrated that after 64 years, there have been only four black women to play on the LPGA Tour.
Powell remembers a time when the United Golf Association had junior programs at each member club to support rising black talent.
"We have made advancements, but not a whole lot of advancements," she said.
Stackhouse will carve her own path for both girls and African-Americans in the game by continuing on the journey that she started when she was still that little girl who planned to get inside that TV. The Curtis Cup match is another step in that direction. She has gained extensive match play experience through the Georgia State Golf Association and various other outlets that have prepared her well for the matches in St. Louis.
"My goal is to not just have played on the tour, but to be a great professional," Stackhouse said. "I want to be the best in the world one day.
"I have two more years in college and I want to make the most of it. I need to step up my work ethic so that when I graduate, I am giving myself the best opportunity to go for my dreams."
In March, Stackhouse demonstrated her commitment to college golf by turning down one of the 10 amateur exemptions to play in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, an LPGA Tour major. She chose instead to play in a collegiate event that conflicted with the tour event. Her decision was not surprising to her father.
"We never really talked about professional golf growing up," Ken Stackhouse said. "Our main goal that we stuck to was to get her good enough to get a high quality education and the golf skills that would allow her to compete at the professional level if that's what she chose to do.
"The emphasis has always been on school and I know that she won't leave school to pursue professional golf."
When Stackhouse does make that leap, the women's game will be ready to warmly embrace her cheerfulness and strong game. She will be a big enough star to easily fit inside any TV.
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