LPGA History Is Upon Us: Sadena Parks And Cheyenne Woods Have Arrived
OCALA, Fla. -- Sadena Parks has the mind of an improvisational comedian, wit bubbling out of her like a natural stream.
"Actually, I'm not sure I'm funny," Parks said, "but Cheyenne keeps laughing, so ..."
Cheyenne Woods reassures her pal she is a hoot, and then they're off on another topic -- the pressing need both have for pedicures for the upcoming "gala" dinner prior to the LPGA's season-launching tournament in January.
"I've got open-toed shoes," Parks said, resignedly. "And you can't have your feet looking like this.''
Parks makes her best "monster face" while curling her hands up like claws. Woods cracks up again, and they resolve to try to get the pedicures together ASAP. Parks doesn't care for such things, but if Woods goes along with her, it won't be so bad.
They're doing something a whole lot bigger than toe maintenance together, though. Both women have earned playing status to compete in 2015 on the LPGA Tour. They are just the fifth and sixth African-American women to be members of the tour, which was founded in 1950.
"I think it's special that both Sadena and I were able to do it the same year," Woods said. "We've known each other since we were 14 or 15 years old. We grew up playing in the same golf organizations. It's kind of a long time coming.
"And I do think it's significant because of the lack of African-American women in the LPGA. You can name all of them easily because there have been so few."
The list starts with tennis legend Althea Gibson, who took up golf in her 30s and began playing on the LPGA Tour in 1964. It also includes Renee Powell (late 1960s to 1980), LaRee Sugg (1995-97 and 2000-01) and Shasta Averyhardt (conditional status in 2011 and '13).
When you look at the LPGA, you don't have a big name of any African-American woman who kids can look up to, or put their poster on their wall, or tune in and watch them every week.Cheyenne Woods
No African-American has won an LPGA title. Gibson came the closest when she tied for second after a playoff in 1970.
Parks and Woods, both 24, want to be game-changers in inspiring more African-American girls to take up the sport. But they know they must have some level of success -- on a very competitive tour -- to gain needed visibility. And barriers that traditionally have kept various demographics away from golf also must be overcome. For many kids, golf is still not accessible geographically or financially.
There's also the social aspect of how welcoming the sport truly is to minorities, even in 2015. Reflection after the recent death of African-American golfing pioneer Charlie Sifford painfully reminded everyone of the many decades when golf's main governing bodies kept their doors closed to black players.
The emergence in the 1990s of Cheyenne's uncle, Tiger Woods, sparked an on-going national -- and international -- conversation about race and golf. But the LPGA seemed largely ignored in that discussion, as too often has been the case with most topics in golf. And while the LPGA of the past two decades has become far more representative of global golf, there still has been almost no African-American presence.
"I'd like to help kids think golf is cool, and it's for everybody," Woods said. "But when you look at the LPGA, you don't have a big name of any African-American woman who kids can look up to, or put their poster on their wall, or tune in and watch them every week. I think that's something that the game has been lacking."
Creating a strong bond
Parks and Woods are doing a photo shoot in the Governor's Room at the Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club. It's the typical dark-paneled, high-ceilinged, library-like space of country clubs, filled with heavy furniture in muted colors. It has that deliberately anachronistic feel of solemnity, except ...
Check out the gold-framed paintings on the walls. Are those dogs in human clothes? A portrait of a stately dalmatian clad in a military jacket? A sad-eyed spaniel wearing an 1800s dress? This bit of unexpected whimsy in décor seems perfect for the occasion.
"Awww, I really want a dog," Woods said. Parks understands but adds, "I just don't have time for one."
Woods and Parks, both college graduates who have played on other tours professionally, have taken a dues-paying road to get this far. They first met about a decade ago at the Bill Dickey Invitational, a junior event for minority golfers. By that time, Woods' uncle was already one of the most famous athletes in the world, and she was proud of him. But she was, in her words, just an average middle-class kid who lived with her mother, Susan, after her parents had divorced. Cheyenne's father, Earl Woods Jr., is Tiger's half brother.
Earl Woods Sr. saw Cheyenne swing a club at age 2 and predicted, with affectionate humor, that she had a pro future. It turned out she had real talent, not just the kind that hopeful grandparents see. She also danced and ran track. But golf was, indeed, her calling.
"My mom searched out for a local minority golf association in Phoenix when I was 8 or 9," Woods said. "So then I could play golf with other kids who kind of looked similar. It really opened up my eyes to the fact that I wasn't the only one like me.
"My mom is white and my dad is black, and I grew up more on my mom's side of the family. So when I went to this golf group, I was around other kids who were mixed-race, African-American, Mexican. We all had something in common."
Parks' parents also were divorced, and she grew up with her father, Washington Parks, in the Pacific Northwest. Her relationship with her mom was more distant, both geographically and emotionally, but Parks said it is something they're still working on.
Parks and her father were exceptionally close, so when he went to the golf course, she accompanied him.
"I didn't like leaving her behind in anything, so I bought her a starter set of clubs for $35," Washington Parks said. "I bought her clothes, did her hair, took her to basketball practice and T-ball and whatever else she did. Being a dad was what I feel like I was meant to do."
Sadena, though, wasn't sure what was meant for her. She began to enter golf tournaments but had ability at other sports, too, such as track and basketball. She acknowledges that she struggled as a teenager with thoughts that it might be easier to focus on one of those sports, which were more popular with her friends.
"I did feel out of place at times," Parks said.
The thing was, golf just felt so natural for her, despite some tough moments. Sadena remembers one afternoon playing golf with her father, when someone in a car drove by and shouted a racial epithet at them, saying they should get off the course.
Washington Parks told Sadena to ignore it and to refuse to let a hateful, pathetic idiot have any power over how she felt.
I told her, 'Sometimes, you will have to deal with ignorance. But there are going to be a whole lot more people who are with you than against you.' And that's been the case.Washington Parks
"I told her, 'Sometimes, you will have to deal with ignorance,'" he recalled. "'But there are going to be a whole lot more people who are with you than against you.' And that's been the case."
Washington's matter-of-fact, buoyant optimism has motivated him through life, and Sadena inherited that. It's helped carry her through doubts.
"I knew I was talented and that I wanted a chance at the LPGA," Parks said. "It's mental. When you're over the ball, if you're thinking, 'Do I belong?' then you have to fight those thoughts. It's deeper than golf itself."
She didn't have to explain that to Woods. They didn't even have to talk about it. Both just knew.
"We would see each other here and there throughout the next few years," Woods said of Parks after their initial meeting. "And because there aren't many African-American golfers out there, you create such a strong bond."
Their paths didn't cross during college, as they went to schools on opposite coasts -- Woods at Wake Forest in North Carolina and Parks at the University of Washington. Once they began pro golf and trying to make the rugged climb into the LPGA, their friendship deepened even though they still didn't see each other often.
Parks won twice in 2014 on the Symetra Tour, and her top-10 finish on the money list for the LPGA's developmental circuit last year earned her membership to play in the "big leagues" in 2015.
Woods also won last year, in a tournament co-sponsored by the Australia and European women's tours. Her entry into the LPGA Tour for this season, though, came through her 11th-place finish in qualifying school in December.
"This tour is the highest you can get in women's golf,'' Parks said. "And we're both doing it at the same time. It happened exactly as it should."
It's been a long road here
With any issue concerning race, there always will be those who ask why it should matter in 2015. The answer can be complex. Or is can be as simple as this: Children tend to seek role models they look like, or with whom they can especially identify. Girls have had few African-American female professional golfers from whom to draw inspiration.
History explains a big part of the reason why, painful as it can be to explore that. The so-called "double whammy" of discrimination African-American women faced -- both racism and sexism -- often discouraged all but the most determined among them from playing golf.
As journalist and author Pete McDaniel chronicled in his book, "Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African-Americans in Golf," black women had to be particularly resilient to carve out their place in a game that, at best, didn't welcome them and, at worst, outright excluded them.
"These golf enthusiasts were not only thwarted by the same forces of racism outside their community that blocked all African-Americans' access to the game," McDaniel wrote, "but also by male chauvinism within it."
However, just as the Negro Leagues developed its own culture, heroes and legacy when African-Americans were banned from Major League Baseball, there were black golfers -- women among them -- who were very accomplished.
I ran into everything.You're getting obscene phone calls in the middle of the night. Threatening letters on your life. Going in restaurants and they don't serve you, and hotels 'lose' your reservations.Renee Powell
The United Golfers Association (UGA) started in the 1920s to give African-Americans a more welcoming counterpart to other golf organizations. Paris Brown, a longtime UGA tournament director born just after the turn of the century, made contributions so vast that she was considered "the first lady of black golf."
Ann Gregory, who took up the sport when she was in her 30s, became the first African-American woman to play in a United States Golf Association event, competing in the 1956 U.S. Women's Amateur at age 44.
Woods sought out Renee Powell, in particular, to learn about her past. Powell started playing on the course her parents, William and Marcella Powell, built in Ohio, a place where she continues to work now at age 68.
"I'm thankful to have a pretty good relationship with Renee Powell and to hear the stories of what she's gone through," Woods said. "It makes you appreciate where you are."
Powell, like Althea Gibson, felt the direct sting of segregation when they competed in the 1960s. Sometimes, there were hotels where they couldn't stay and clubhouses where they couldn't change clothes.
"I ran into everything," Powell said. "You're getting obscene phone calls in the middle of the night. Threatening letters on your life. Going in restaurants and they don't serve you, and hotels 'lose' your reservations.
"Even though I was playing the same sport and competing each day, I was going through things my peers didn't have to go through."
But Powell was thankful for the many women on tour, such as Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth, who stood in solidarity with her. And Powell never considered giving up the sport.
"No, because I came from a background where my parents were groundbreakers," Powell said. "I saw what others did, too, and they were a huge influence on me. You have to stay the course.
"We can't put extra weight on Cheyenne and Sadena to succeed, just because they're African-American women that play on tour. But just by them being there, it does a lot."
Encouraging younger generations
LaRee Sugg learned the sport from her grandfather, Dr. James C. Nelson, a professor and golf coach at Virginia State University. By the time she was competing as a junior player in the 1980s, she said there were no overt displays of racial discrimination at golf courses. Things were more subtle.
"Sometimes it was a look you'd get," Sugg said. "Or you'd play in a junior tournament and some people would accept you there for a week. But you knew they wouldn't want you joining the club."
Still, Sugg said it didn't compare to what older people such as her grandfather had faced.
"In fact, I faced more discrimination in golf as a female than I did as an African-American," Sugg said. "There were places you couldn't go -- not because you were black, but because you were a woman."
Sugg, who won an NCAA team title with UCLA in 1991, had hoped by the time she stepped away from the LPGA in 2001, there would be a younger black woman on the tour, or perhaps even more than one.
"I wanted to be a positive influence and a mentor for whoever would follow me," Sugg said. "I was trying to hang on until the next one came along. But that didn't quite happen."
Now Sugg, an assistant athletic director at the University of Richmond, is among those cheering for Woods and Parks.
I'm just so proud that they are out there on tour. The goal, of course, is that one day, this isn't going to be unusual.LaRee Sugg
"I'm just so proud that they are out there on tour," Sugg said. "The goal, of course, is that one day, this isn't going to be unusual."
In the past two decades, organizations such as The First Tee, the American Junior Golf Association and LPGA-USGA Girls Golf have worked to try to boost the numbers of girls and minorities in the sport.
"I grew up playing with the LPGA Girls Golf club in Phoenix, and it made it fun," Woods said. "You're able to meet friends and make it more a social experience. And I've done some clinics with the First Tee of Phoenix; it's great to see the excitement that kids have about golf."
The First Tee, founded in 1997 by the major U.S. golf associations, including the LPGA, has as its mission helping young people develop better life skills through participation in golf. It has 178 chapters nationwide and its goal by 2017 is to have at least 45 percent of its participants be girls. First Tee CEO Joe Louis Barrow Jr. said in 2014 that number was 38 percent, the highest it's been since the organization was started.
"Having Cheyenne and Sadena on the LPGA Tour -- we think that will have a very positive impact on the girls who are already in our programs, and will bring more in," Barrow said.
Increasing participation of minority players is also a focus of Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television and the president of the WNBA's Washington Mystics. Among Johnson's many business ventures are golf resorts on the East Coast, and in 2013 she became the first African-American woman elected to the USGA's executive committee.
"We have to help encourage younger generations to get into golf," Johnson said. "We see it especially with African-American young women, that they don't feel like they have a place in the game. We're passionate about changing that."
At last, their quests begin
In late January, Woods and Parks ate lunch after a practice round at Ocala, and at the table next to them sat someone who also understands the power of inspiration. Lizette Salas, whose parents emigrated from Mexico and settled in the Los Angeles area, is a role model for Hispanic-Americans, another group that has been under-represented on the LPGA Tour.
"There are stories out here about breaking financial and cultural barriers that make our tour special," said Salas, who graduated from USC, has one LPGA Tour victory and has played in the Solheim Cup. "I have my junior golf program at home, and I am routinely reminded that there are kids out there just like me who want to achieve greatness. They just need guidance and support.
"We have every color, shape, size and background on the LPGA Tour, and I think we all learn a lot from each other."
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan said the presence of players such as Woods and Parks is exactly what the tour needs.
"I think it comes down to somebody setting the mark," Whan said. "The first African-American woman who wins an LPGA event, it's going to change the way some young kids think about this sport, and their opportunities in it.
"We've seen these barriers break down in other countries that previously had little or no history in women's golf, like Taiwan or Malaysia or China. Nothing gets kids' attention more than role models. At the end of the day, they have to have someone to believe in."
Woods and Parks hope to have enough success to inspire that belief.
"It's not just being there on tour; I don't think that's good enough," Parks said. "You have to win some to get people to really notice."
And that's hard to do. Parks missed the cut in the season-opening LPGA event in Florida, and then withdrew when she didn't feel well after the first round of the next event, in the Bahamas. Woods finished tied for 75th in the Florida tournament and didn't play in the Bahamas.
There are a lot of expenses for the players, their caddies and their coaches if they travel.
"The search for sponsorship money continues," said Washington Parks, who covers Sadena's costs. "She gets some money from the ball company and the equipment company, but it's not very much.
"We hope the finances situation changes fairly soon. I think the pressure that causes is unavoidable, and it's there for a lot of players. I think Sadena feels that pressure both from a financial standpoint and because she knows there are a lot of people who really want to see her do well."
Golf fans got to see Parks' jovial side on display when she appeared on The Golf Channel show "The Big Break," and they liked what they saw. Washington Parks said so many people approached Sadena to wish her luck after a round at last year's U.S. Women's Open, he got choked up and had to step away to compose himself.
Woods has long ago made peace with having "Tiger's niece" attached to her name. She has a gracious effervescence that makes people around her immediately at ease.
She and Parks have the kind of personalities the LPGA craves in its golfers: outgoing and approachable.
Parks has a fascination with nature; it's one of her favorite parts of being on a golf course. Woods is keen on architecture and has visits to Italy, Egypt and Greece on her "bucket list."
"Unfortunately, those are places we don't have any tournaments," she said.
Who would win a long-drive competition between the two? Woods immediately points her club at Parks, who's small in stature but powerful off the tee. Who would win a chipping contest?
"She did today," Parks said of Woods.
Who would be more comfortable standing over a 5-footer for victory when her heart was pounding and her knees were knocking?
"You know," Woods said, "I think that we can both do that."
Melissa Isaacson contributed to this story.