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Powell wins PGA Distinguished Service AwardPosted Thursday, August 13, 2009, at 1:16 PM
The PGA Championship has been labeled as "Glory's Last Shot" because it is the final major championship of the season. Legacies, Ryder Cup spots and many things are always at stake at this venue. It is the proudest moment of the year for the PGA's 28,000 members and apprentices.
The PGA Distinguished Service Award ceremony takes place each Wednesday evening of Championship Week. Inaugurated in 1988, the PGA Distinguished Service Award honors outstanding individuals who display leadership and humanitarian qualities, including integrity, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the game of golf.
Previous DSA award winners include Bob Hope, The Honorable Gerald Ford, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Patty Berg, The Honorable George H.W. Bush and Jack Nicklaus -- just to name a few.
William Powell, PGA was presented with the 2009 PGA Distinguished Service Award and this has been the highlight of the Championship Week for me. Unless the 2009 champion holes his second shot on the 72nd hole for a one stroke victory, Bill Powell will probably leave the longest lasting impression on many who attend the 91st PGA Championship.
Powell is a 92-year-old African-American and his story in golf is worth telling. He grew up in Minerva, Ohio which is just outside of Akron. He discovered a love for golf at age 9 by playing and caddying at Edgewater Golf Course. As his own game developed, Powell became a multi-sport athlete at Minerva High School.
He led his football team to an undefeated season, outscoring opponents by a 332-0 margin. Powell and his friends would form a high school golf team and Bill was asked by his athletic director to serve as captain and coach. Powell even scheduled his team's matches.
Some of the most profound advice that Powell received as a youngster came at age 12, when during a fire drill his principal randomly said, "Billy, you know you are a little colored boy and you have to realize that you can't do things just as good as a white boy- you have to do them better."
He applied that wisdom to his life after high school as he attended Wilberforce University in Xenia, OH, where in 1937 the school's golf team traveled to face Northern Ohio University in the first interracial collegiate golf match in American history.
Powell met Marcella Oliver the love of his life in 1939 and the couple was married a year later. In 1942, he began a four-year stint of service to the U.S. Army and reached the rank of Tech Sergeant. While stationed in England and Scotland, Powell enjoyed the opportunity to play some of the world's finest courses -- something he would be denied upon returning to the United States.
When he returned home, most clubhouse doors were not open to him. Powell then decided it was up to him to create a pathway to the course on his own. In September 1946, having been denied G.I. Loan by banks that claimed ignorance of the program, Powell received the financial backing of two black physicians and began building a public golf course, which he named Clearview.
He was able to open nine holes in 1948. Powell built the course by hand -- literally. He walk seeded every acre of the course. He converted a Model A car into a tractor to help mow fairways. Hunters would use Clearview for target practice while Powell cleared the land. As late as 1999, a shooter left a hole in a water container on the front nine. And passing motorists periodically still yell racial slurs as golfers play the course.
For 23 years, Bill Powell worked 18 hours a day as a security guard and golf course operator. In 1978, Powell grew Clearview into an 18-hole golf course. Marcella loyally worked by his side until she passed away a few years ago. His son, Larry is a 36-year member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association and serves Clearview in that capacity.
Today, Clearview is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and "America's Course" as Powell once said, "is a course where the only color that matters is the color of the greens".
Bill Powell's pioneering efforts have been carried on by his daughter, Renee who was the 2003 PGA First Lady of Golf and a PGA/LPGA Professional. She was the second African American to compete on the LPGA Tour following tennis great Althea Gibson.
"It was his will to not allow things to hold him down," says Renee of her father. "If you continue to always ponder on the negative, you can never get anything positive done."
In 1996, Bill Powell was inducted into the National Black Hall of Fame and in 1997 was presented Honorary PGA membership by the Northern Ohio PGA Section. In 1999, his PGA membership was made retroactive to Jan. 1, 1962 by the PGA of America thus making Powell a long overdue PGA life member. He had been excluded as a member because of the PGA's Caucasian only membership clause which existed prior to 1961.
Powell was honored on Wednesday night by the PGA in front of a packed house in a downtown Minneapolis auditorium. The "who's who" of African-Americans in attendance was led by NFL greats Franco Harris, Alan Page and Carl Eller. Tubby Smith, University of Minnesota basketball coach was also on hand. Letters of recognition were presented from several including President Barack Obama.
The 92-year-old Powell was helped to the stage where we read a compelling account of his life story to a silent, spellbound and emotionally charged crowd. Bill's own account of his life and the obstacles that he faced might rate as one of his finest accomplishments. That is saying a lot given the magnitude of this man's life.
After the ceremony concluded, I had the opportunity to congratulate Bill and shake his hand. I couldn't help but notice the softness of his skin. Most golf pros have callused hands, but the softness in Powell's hands matched that of his heart.
Here was a proud man with a gentle smile who overcame so much. He is a man whose family dedicated their lives to his dream and yet left their own separate marks on golf. For Bill Powell- there is no bitterness. No hard feelings, just appreciation on his part for the opportunity to fulfill his dreams.
Bill Powell is indeed a special man and the first champion of the 2009 PGA Championship!
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