Made redundant from her job at Lockheed Martin at the age of 55, Clemmie Perry started thinking she needed to find a hobby.
She turned to golf, but was immediately struck by the lack of diversity. So ever since Perry picked up her first set of clubs in 2013, she has made it her mission to bridge the access gap in the sport.
Founded in 1950, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) is one of the longest-running women’s professional sports associations. But the LPGA has historically struggled with a lack of diversity and inclusion in the game.
It took a little more than a decade for the first Black player, Althea Gibson, to join the tour. Fourteen years later Nancy Lopez followed suit, becoming the first Hispanic player to compete on the LPGA Tour.
Since 1950, just eight Black players have held full-time membership in LPGA Tour history, according to the organization.
The LPGA says most of its tournaments have approximately 100 to 120 players and fields are based on a “Priority List.”
Players in approximately the top 150 are generally considered full-time as they get into a majority of events, the LGPA confirmed to CNN Sport.
Of the more than 530 LPGA Tour members, about 220 of whom are active competitors, there is only one Black player with full-time membership — Mariah Stackhouse — the LPGA confirmed to CNN. Stackhouse is No. 127 in the LPGA’s priority list for 2021.
“There are various ways to earn LPGA Tour Membership, including winning an event, advancing through our Qualifying Series, advancing from our developmental tour or earning a certain amount of money in a given year,” added the LPGA.
Meanwhile on the LPGA and Symetra Tours combined as few as 2% of players are Black compared with 55% of White competitors, according to statistics provided by the LPGA.
The organisation told CNN: “We are committed long-term to changing the face of golf, making the sport we love more diverse, accessible and inclusive.”
Efforts are being made to increase the diversity of the sport from a beginner level, but data from the National Golf Foundation shows that among juniors who first played on a golf course in 2019, about 36% were girls and just over a quarter were “non-Caucasian.”
A grassroots game
Perry set up Women Of Color Golf (WOCG), a Black-led non-profit organisation based in Florida to “increase diversity and inclusion in the sport of golf for women and girls.” Thus far she has trained 600 ethnic minority women and girls
“I realized I had to make a change for the women and girls behind me,” said Perry, who comes from a legacy of changemakers.
In 1992, her mother became the first Black woman elected to the Hillsborough County School Board, eventually being elected chair three years later. Before that her grandmother was an educator and civil rights leader in Tampa, Florida.
“I never had to learn Black history from a book. They were sitting at my dinner table telling me the stories,” says Perry.
It was her family’s commitment to fighting for equity that inspired her dedication to community-based service.
“I’ve seen what the struggle looks like. We’ve always been champions for social justice,” she says.
Perry says one of the biggest barriers to golf is the cost. Training, coaching, travel and green fees aren’t cheap.
“If the medium income of an African-American is about $45,000, golf is not going to be on the radar. But you can pick up a basketball, you can pick up a football, it only costs you a pair of tennis shoes to run track,” she says.
The burden of representation
Shasta Averyhardt is a 35-year-old Black pro golfer based in Sarasota, Florida who says that she wouldn’t have made the LPGA or the Symetra Tour without her parents’ financial backing.
Like Perry she emphasizes that the economic obligations of the sport can be burdensome. “You need somebody with you that is fully invested and is going to push you, because you can’t do it by yourself,” she tells CNN.
As a junior-level golfer she was raised under programmes that gave her access to exclusive country clubs.
But, she says, from an early age she was often one of the few Black players on the course, something that extended into her professional career. In 2010 Averyhardt became the fourth Black golfer to play on the LPGA Tour, making her rookie debut in 2011.
At the time the pressure of expectation was daunting, but the burden of representation was even greater. “I was struggling with being able to cut all of the chatter out,” she says.
She was aware of the history she was making by following in the footsteps of greats like Althea Gibson and Renee Powell, the second Black woman to play on the tour, although her top priority was getting good results so that she could continue to fund her journey.
“Early on I thought it was really unfair to have that burden and not be backed with the money that was needed to be successful,” she says.
Champions of visibility
After a brief stint away from golf, Averyhardt re-entered the arena in 2017.
She was staying in Florida at the time and came across Perry’s organisation, finding that the mission statement immediately resonated with her.
Averyhardt signed on as an ambassador for a year, and was paid to speak at scheduled classes for women and girls, in the hope that her visibility would help grow the group’s mission.
Stackhouse is a 27-year-old pro golfer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She counts Averyhardt as one of her closest friends and an inspiration both on and off the course.
Stackhouse is the LPGA’s only full-time Black player, a feat that she says was especially challenging during her rookie year in 2017.
She credits her caddy at the time, Abimbola “Bebe” Olakanye, as having provided her with the support she needed to get through the season. Olakanye was born in Nigeria and moved to Florida in his teens.
“In the same way I felt alone, he definitely has had those experiences as a Black caddy. The guy was next to me all the time, he helped make that transition a lot smoother,” she says.
As a junior, Stackhouse’s father made sure she was surrounded by fellow Black golfers, inducting her into local summer programs on Atlanta’s south side.
“They structured my growth in a way that I was never able to feel ‘othered,’ because I’d always seen a lot of other Black kids playing through those programs,” she says.
“I think it’s incredibly important that all spaces represent the world that we live in. If you’re in a space like golf, that is synonymous with affluence and wealth, and you only see people that look like you, something’s wrong,” Stackhouse adds.
Alongside equal access programmes Averyhardt believes that young girls will be more likely to take up golf if they see players who look like them, something she hopes to champion through her own visibility.
“I want them to feel empowered and inspired when they see me playing on the course, to feel the exact same way I did when I was watching Tiger Woods play,” Averyhardt says.
‘When one wins, we all win’
At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer both players were able to lean on their social circles for support, something that strengthened their sense of community both on and off the course.
“If there’s one thing that came out of the movement from last summer in terms of the space that I’m in as a professional golfer, it’s that closeness that it brought out of us. We were able to understand each other specifically in a way that nobody else could,” says Stackhouse.
Averyhardt agrees. “In the wake of everything that happened last year, we came together. There’s an unspoken bond that we know this is a safe space. I didn’t have that for years,” she says.
“We all want to have each other prosper and succeed, and so we’re going to do everything we can to help each other. When one wins, we all win,” she adds.
Drawing strength from community
Sandra Braham has been a member of the WOCG community for nearly three years and says that being part of the collective has been key to her enjoyment of playing golf.
“Golf has changed my life. People are starting to see us and want us to be present, because it’s helping women of color to take up the game and that’s important,” Braham said.
Having nurtured a community of women and girls who have leaned on each other’s shoulders for support both on and off the course, Perry now wants to extend her reach.
This spring she will use a $30,000 grant awarded by the PGA Tour to bring her mentoring program, Girls On the Green Tee (GOTGT), to under-served schools in Florida.
The initiative introduces girls aged 10 to 17 to the game through mentoring, course play and networking events.
So far the program has operated at The Center 4 Girls in Tampa. This March it will take effect at both Clemmie Ross James Elementary and Doris Ross Reddick Elementary, schools that are named after Perry’s grandmother and mother respectively to honor their work as pioneer educators and activists.
From listening to her family’s stories at her dining room table to honoring their social justice work through WOCG, Perry says that everything has come full circle.
“That legacy is being carried by us serving as an example, really giving back to our community. Every time I see a young girl swing a club, I know that her whole world has opened.”
*This story has been updated to make clear the grant was awarded by the PGA Tour.