How one man set about changing the game of golf — and how his family carries on his legacy.
At 67, former Ladies Professional Golf Association tour standout Renee Powell still has the powerful shoulders of an athlete, though she rarely plays anymore. She’s too busy overseeing the day-to-day operations of Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio (which she runs with her brother, Larry) to hit the links much herself. Instead, she can often be seen bustling about the clubhouse, directing employees and chatting with golfers.
Renee and Larry’s ties to Clearview run deep. Their father, William Powell, opened the course 65 years ago — an impressive achievement for any individual, but even more significant considering the hardships William faced in opening it. In fact, as a black man, William wasn’t even allowed to play the game he loved at many courses in his youth.
William had always been crazy about golf. At an age when other boys were mad for baseball or football, he was caddying and learning to play at a course near Minerva, his small Ohio hometown, where the Powells were the only African-American family. But after serving his country in the segregated Army Air Forces for three years during World War II, he returned home to find that, while he still could play at his hometown course, other golf courses didn’t allow black players. Turns out that his getting to play in Minerva was an exception, as William’s parents were well respected in town.
Upon realizing this, William began dreaming of building his own golf course, one that would welcome everybody regardless of race. One where, as he liked to say, “The only color that matters is the color of the greens.” Family and friends said he was crazy, Renee recalls. “Everyone looked at it as a white man’s game,” she says.
Now You Know: African-American golfers were excluded from PGA events until a rule change in 1961, thanks largely to the efforts of Bill Spiller.
It did seem crazy for William, a man with heart problems who worked in a steel mill, to think he could single-handedly gather the necessary resources to build a golf course. Despite William’s service to the country, banks refused to grant him a G.I. Bill loan because of the color of his skin. Undaunted, William convinced two local African-American doctors to invest in his plan to convert an old dairy farm, located about 90 minutes south of Cleveland, into an equal-opportunity golf course. William’s brother provided the last third of the purchase price, which William never revealed.
In 1946, William moved his family into the farmhouse on the property he’d bought. (At first, the house had no indoor plumbing — a fact his wife, Marcella, was less than thrilled about.) Over the next two years, William built the course’s nine holes by hand. He preserved the natural contours of the land — two natural streams and rolling hills covered in pines — which gave the links the look and feel of a traditional British course.
Clearview Golf Club opened in 1948. Over the years, it has been expanded to include 18 holes over 125 acres. As the first golf course in the United States designed, built and owned by an African-American, it has earned recognition on the National Register of Historic Places. William received the PGA Distinguished Service Award, the Professional Golfers’ Association of America’s highest annual honor, in 2009, and passed away later that year at age 93. This year, he was inducted posthumously into the PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where mementos from his life are on view.