Renee Powell was 25 when she went to Vietnam to run golf clinics for U.S. military personnel. Forty years later, the former LPGA Tour player still draws inspiration from the troops she interacted with during her 1971 visit and those she’s met since.
by Emily Kay
Powell joined LPGA pro Mary Lou Daniel and one-armed trick-shot artist, the late Jimmy Nichols for the journey sponsored by the USO and State Department, according to the PGA of America’s Bob Denney. The experience left an indelible imprint on Powell, who has viewed the world through a different prism since her return from Vietnam.
“There are bigger things going on in the world [than what Tiger Woods’ ex-caddie Steve Williams said about his former boss], like soldiers dying in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Powell told us last week by phone. “Sometimes you have to put things in a better perspective.”
So when Powell learned about the PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) concept, she seized the opportunity to tailor the curriculum for women veterans coming home from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. HOPE’s aim is to use golf to assist the vets heal from physical and emotional wounds that include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“There are so many golf programs out there for veterans, but they’re mostly aimed at males,” Powell said. “There was nothing out there that was solely an independent program for women vets.”
Former LPGA Tour player Renee Powell (l.) helps injured women war veterans find enjoyment in golf (Photo: Jay LaPrete/USGA)
This season, 17 women enlisted in the clinic Powell runs at Clearview Country Club, the East Canton, Ohio, course her late father, William, built in 1946 as a haven for all golfers and where she serves as head pro. Powell hoped to attract several more women vets for next year’s five-week session, which involves a series of one free lesson per week and for which Powell provides complementary equipment, including clubs.
“We have women from Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and from the Army, Air Force, and Marines,” Powell said, noting that two participants were blind. “We’re getting them involved with the game of golf as part of therapy, especially for women who suffered injuries or PTSD.”
Powell knew how she wanted to structure the agenda but locating women interested in participating was a far greater challenge. “We did a kick-off for women, but it’s difficult finding women vets,” she said.
But Powell has hurdled far greater obstacles in her life. She was the first African American to play in the U.S. Girls Junior Championship and in 1967 became the second African American to join the LPGA Tour. Her father, who received the 2009 PGA Distinguished Service Award for overcoming racial barriers to become the only African American to design, build, own, and operate a golf course, showed her the way. His Clearview CC stands today as a National Historic Landmark.
The Veterans Administration helped Powell reach out to the vets, most of whom had never played golf before they met at Clearview in July.
“There were younger women from the Iraqi Freedom campaign thanking women who had served in Vietnam,” Powell recalled. “It was very emotional [for them] to meet other veteran women from other branches. They had never met any others before. It was just amazing.”
While Powell coaches the women on their swings and short games, the gatherings themselves have brought together women who otherwise would not have found each other.
“Even though our backgrounds and branches of the service are different, we weren’t finding a connection in the standard veterans’ organizations,” Beth Whitmore, a judge, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1968-1972, told the USGA’s Rhonda Glenn. “This is the first time I’ve been with women veterans where we could share our experiences. What I really appreciated is that the PGA and Renee are willing to help women veterans, collectively, to be able to sit down and share, to be able to look at each other and say thank you. It’s something I have not been able to do since I left the service.”
Under Powell’s tutelage, the women have become a tightly knit group that extends beyond the golf course. In addition to informal get-togethers, the women have invited an overseas vet having difficulties to join them for Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve also “adopted” a family for Christmas, Powell said.
“This core group of women are finding other women and bringing them into the group. They’re using golf as a tool [for outreach],” she said. “We’re thanking our vets who’ve protected us and allowing them to participate in a program where they feel comfortable and safe.”