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New Links: How two pioneering African Americans came to inspire a St Andrews golfing charity

Renee Powell visiting St Andrews at the time of The Open 2015
Renee Powell visiting St Andrews at the time of The Open 2015

When it was announced on November 15 that the inaugural Charlie Sifford Award will be presented to Renee Powell at The World Golf Hall of Fame in March next year, it not only highlighted the pioneering American golfers’ close connections to St Andrews – it also highlighted their connections to a local charity.

The relationships are long, deep, and productive, with Sifford having inspired the creation of New Links in 2006, and Powell remaining a close friend to the organisation throughout 16 years of activity.

During that time, almost 200 young people from the USA, South Africa, Kenya, and Scotland have got together to enjoy golfing and educational experiences centred on the Home of Golf.

How did New Links begin?

It all began when New Links co-founders, George Davis of Los Angeles and Kenny Wood of St Andrews, happened to be sitting next to one another on a flight across the Atlantic.

George Davis, New Links co-founder

Their conversation turned to golf and some of the problems associated with a sport still sometimes seen as elitist, racist and sexist.

George Davis recalls: “I had read ‘Just Let Me Play’ by Mr Sifford; I had heard of him before then (and that he won the LA Open) but knew little about his life story.

“When I read the book I was incredibly angry and upset that he had to tolerate such abuse.

“I was also disturbed that the golf world had tolerated it.”

Who was Charlie Sifford?

Sifford – the first African American to play on the PGA tour – had been unable to compete on the Professional Golfers of America tour until he was 37 years old because of a Caucasians only clause in that organisation’s constitution which lasted into the 1960s.

Charlie Sifford and Kenny Wood in St Andrews after honorary degree presented in 2006

Although Sifford turned professional in 1948, he was excluded from the PGA Tour until 1961, when he became the first African American to compete as a member.

Despite the injustice of having some of his best years behind him, Sifford won the Travelers Championship (1967) and Genesis Invitational (1969) and finished in the top-60 on the money list in his first nine years on tour.

In all he made 399 cuts out of 422 starts, with victories in the Greater Hartford Invitational and in the LA Open, earning over $1 million in prize money on the tour before continuing on to the seniors tour.

In 2004, Sifford was inducted into the Hall of Fame in recognition of his historic contributions in breaking barriers for generations of minority golfers who would follow in his footsteps, including Tiger Woods, 2022 Hall of Fame inductee.

Charlie Sifford joins New Links group at St Andrews

Sifford was also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2014) prior to his passing in 2015.

Stain on American golf

The obstacles put in the way of players like Sifford, Teddy Rhodes, Lee Elder and Bill Spiller remain a stain on American golf.

But Sifford’s story of overcoming prejudice with dignity, perseverance and courage remains a light to all.

Kenny Wood, an astrophysicist at St Andrews University, remembers his subsequent encounter with Sifford’s autobiography well. It inspired him to nominate Sifford for an honorary degree at St Andrews University in 2006.

“Charlie’s book changed my life,” he says.

Charlie Sifford’s book ‘Just Let Me Play’

“By the end of the first chapter I knew I had to propose him for an honorary degree; seeing it happen in June 2006 was an experience I will treasure forever.”

Visit to Old Course

Sifford visited St Andrews for the first time at age 84, playing the Old Course and joining up with the first New Links youth visit group, teens from the Young Golfers of America Association out of Chester Washington golf course in south-central LA.

He reacted warmly to the history and traditions of the town and signed copies of his book at a special lecture at the end of his week-long visit, which included a reception for him and the YGAA group inside the R&A clubhouse.

Wood said: “It was my dream that the challenge and inspiration of Charlie Sifford’s life would bring out the best in young people who visit St Andrews for years to come.

Renee Powell (second from right) on the first tee of the Old Course, St Andrews, with Lady Angela Bonnallack, New Links co-founder Kenny Wood and Brian Whitcomb, former president of the PGA of America, in June 2008

“Happily, that has indeed happened.

“The intention behind the New Links youth visit is that participants experience international travel, meet new people, represent their own community and culture, and are educated in the history and traditions of golf.

“We are confident that St Andrews will always have a place in their hearts.”

Renee Powell’s St Andrews links

New Links and Renee Powell – the second African American woman ever to compete on the LPGA Tour – have an association going back to January 2007, when Wood met Renee for the first time.

As a prelude to that year’s Ricoh Women’s British Open at St Andrews, Renee, together with the serving Solheim Cup captain Betsy King, gave a sell-out public talk at the Gateway Centre entitled ‘The Many Faces of Women’s Golf’, an event organised by New Links to raise awareness of outreach work undertaken by both women, especially in Africa.

Renee Powell during a visit to St Andrews in 2015

Renee, who is the great granddaughter of Alabama slaves, participated in the New Links youth visit of 2008, acting as a chaperone to four young women representing the Clearview LPGA Girls’ Group, a few weeks after receiving her own honorary degree.

Renee, who has continued to give her support to New Links initiatives, became an honorary member of the R&A in 2015 and a university hall of residence was named for her in 2018.

New Links director John Stewart paid tribute to the co-founders for their vision, dedication and commitment over 16 years.

“By reaching out, communicating, and creating New Links, George and Kenny began something that has benefited people locally and globally and which I believe has made a subtle but crucial contribution to the way golf has developed in modern St Andrews,” he said.

Renee Powell and former American football legend Franco Harris at The Open, St Andrews, in 2015

“Renee has stated publicly: “My parents always said to leave the world in better shape than when you found it. Using that talent and those abilities, you have to try to do that: make the world a better place.”

“Renee has certainly lived up to this high ideal and I think New Links has done too.”

Advancing diversity

The Charlie Sifford Award honours recipients for their spirit in advancing diversity in golf.

The award honours an individual who personifies Sifford’s ground-breaking achievements through perseverance, confidence, respect and adaptability.

Powell has demonstrated resilience amidst her own obstacles of racial adversity and segregation and has dedicated her life to making golf a sport for all.

Renee Powell at opening of Powell Hall at St Andrews University and with Professor Sally Mapstone in 2018

Speaking about the award, which will be presented as part of the World Golf Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony in Florida on March 9, 2022, Powell, who, like Sifford, was awarded an honorary degree by St Andrews University more than a decade ago, said she was “honoured”.

“As a youngster my parents fought to get me into tournaments when I was not welcomed because of the colour of my skin, which instilled in me how important it is to get young people into the game to help build their self-confidence,” she said.

“I’m honoured to be the first recipient of this award and to see Charlie Sifford be recognized for breaking down barriers that never should have been put in front of him and all others of colour who strived to play this game.

“I was taught early on by my parents that golf should be a sport for everyone, and we can all diversify this game in so many ways.”

Renee Powell receives her honorary degree from St Andrews University in 2008

Golf professional

Powell competed in more than 250 professional tournaments during her career and played as a member of the LPGA Tour from 1967 to 1980.

Since 1995, she has served as the head PGA/LPGA professional at Clearview Golf Club (Ohio), which her father – William Powell – established in 1946 as the first U.S. golf course designed, built, owned and operated by an African American.

The club’s non-profit Clearview Legacy Foundation focuses on education, preservation, and research, utilizing golf as a tool to reach everyone, with an emphasis on youth, minorities, veterans, seniors and other underrepresented groups.

Speaking on behalf of the Sifford family, Charles Sifford Jr said of the award: “We are immensely proud and honoured to have this award established in my father’s name.

Renee Powell visiting St Andrews at the time of The Open 2015

“My father, my number one hero, simply wanted to play the game he loved so much and – in this pursuit – endured enormous challenges as an African American golfer.

“His skills, perseverance, grit, and determination propelled him to continue his dream.

“He was successful despite having to overcome multiple barriers of discrimination.

“His hard-fought efforts paved the way for other minority golfers to pursue their career.

“This award is honourably illuminated by having a long-time family friend and successful African American female golfer, Renee Powell, as the first recipient.

“This really is something special.”

EXCLUSIVE: ‘Remember me for my abilities not my gender or skin colour’, says American golf legend Renee Powell ahead of latest St Andrews accolade