By Stacy M. Brown | NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
(NNPA) – Fred Couples, Jack Nicklaus, and Nick Faldo are easily associated with the sport known as the gentlemen’s game.
And it’s easy to understand why those mentioned above would receive honors with the Ambassador of Golf Award, given to individuals who foster the ideals of the game internationally while exhibiting concern for others beyond the golf course.
It’s also understandable that a sport would honor other individuals who’ve taken to the game and have inspired others – thus, George W. Bush, Bob Hope, and Gerald Ford count as dignitaries and entertainers who also have received the Ambassador of Golf Award.
The 2022 Ambassador Award recipient might surprise some for a host of reasons.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earned the recognition this month at the 2022 Bridgestone SENIOR PLAYERS Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
In the 41-year history of the award, the long list of recipients includes just a handful of women – Nancy Lopez, Barbara Nicklaus, Dinah Shore, Joanne Carner, and Judy Rankin.
Dr. Rice becomes the first African American recipient.
“For somebody who is a medium handicap golfer who started very late in life, it is just a tremendous honor,” Dr. Rice said.
“I kind of wonder how they found me. It’s a sport I love because sometimes I say, ‘I wish my parents would have put a golf club in my hand instead of skates on my feet.”
Dr. Rice grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where her mother worked as a teacher and her father a guidance counselor.
She said her dream had always been to perform as a concert pianist, taking piano lessons and entering college as a music major.
However, a course in international politics led Dr. Rice to teaching and then into the political sphere, wherein in 2000, President George W. Bush appointed her as National Security Advisor.
Four years later, Bush appointed Dr. Rice as U.S. Secretary of State.
Dr. Rice carved out a slice of history as the first Black woman to serve in each role.
While some dreams are realized, and others deferred, Dr. Rice would eventually experience one of her passions become a reality in the sport of golf.
She said her dad loved the golf legend Arnold Palmer, and they’d regularly watch the Masters.
In 2006, Dr. Rice visited The Greenbrier Country Club in West Virginia, where she and a relative received golf lessons.
That experience, and later playing at Andrew Air Force Base in Maryland, inspired Dr. Rice to play more golf.
“It’s a game that I think I’ve learned how much it brings friends together,” Dr. Rice remarked. “I thought that some of the nicest people you know, you can go to wonderful places, and I also think it’s a game that’s trying to reach beyond its current boundaries and increase access.”
Dr. Rice continued:
“When I was a kid, nobody played golf in segregated Birmingham. My father was a three-sport letterman – football, basketball, and tennis. It never occurred to him to play golf even though we watched the Masters on television. So, I think just the opening up of the sport is something I’m really proud of.”
In 2012, Dr. Rice again made history.
This time golf history.
She and Investor Darla Moore broke the glass ceiling at Augusta National, becoming the first female member of Augusta National.
The 80-plus-year-old club had only allowed women to play there if they were guests of members. So to celebrate, Dr. Rice and Moore donned the famous green jackets given to Masters winners.
“I sat there when the member of Augusta, a friend of mine, told me that they wanted me to join. I sat there stunned, and he said, ‘you’re going to say yes.’ I said, ‘oh yes, of course,’” Dr. Rice recalled.
Since then, Dr. Rice said she had enjoyed her membership at the legendary club in Georgia.
“Augusta is one of those institutions that shows how America is changing,” Dr. Rice asserted. “It shows how our great traditions and institutions are opening to people who are different.”
Dr. Rice noted further that Augusta had played a significant role in growing the game.
The club has sponsored the Latin American Amateur Championships, the Asian Amateur Championships, and other events that feature individuals of color.
“They’ve started the ‘Drive, Chip, and Putt,’ where young kids come as early as age seven, and most recently, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur has been bringing the best young amateurs there to play the final round of that championship,” Dr. Rice noted.
When asked how golf has become increasingly open to people of color, Dr. Rice said it’s simply about access.
“There’s a couple of things,” she said.
“It had to become a sport that was cool to play. In my case, my parents didn’t play. A lot of white kids played, their parents played, and they belonged to a club. We didn’t have those experiences.
“So, somebody had to attract our teenagers into the game, and I think watching Tiger Woods helped a lot because he looks like somebody who could have played any sport that he wanted to.”
Additionally, Dr. Rice pointed out programs like First Tee that have caught the attention of Black and Brown youth.
“With First Tee, the kids get to learn the game, and then they get to compete, and that’s fun,” Dr. Rice asserted.
“I think the things that are now being done with historically Black colleges and universities, scholarships, and people like [Golden State Warriors Star] Steph Curry and others doing will really help bring people into the game soon enough.
“It’s a hard game. But you have to stick with it, so getting people to the place where they can play it is part of the challenge. It’s a lot harder than any sport I’ve ever played.”
Another challenge remains financial, Dr. Rice added.
“We have to keep working on affordability. It’s an expensive game to play,” the former Secretary of State insisted. “We must keep working on access to courses because it’s fine to have a young person go out and hit balls on a range, but until they get on a golf course, they’re not going to really enjoy it.”
Finally, Dr. Rice offered that she’ll enjoy her moment in the sun when she receives the Ambassador of Golf Award.
“I mean, there are some pretty good names that have gotten that award who can actually play golf really, really, well,” Dr. Rice remarked.
“So, I’m going to try to show people, let people know, how honored I am and how much I hope to be a great Ambassador for golf going forward.”