The Jackie Robinson of Golf

William Powell, the Jackie Robinson of golf.

It’s easy to fall in love with Augusta National Golf Club, as we do each April at Masters time. Its flowering magnolias, sculpted gardens and fairways groomed as meticulously as Rihanna’s hair make it seem less a golf course than an arboretum. It’s a place made for quiet strolls, for dreaming. You want to lose yourself here for an afternoon, to swing a golf club and hear the click of a perfectly struck ball, to inhale the course’s history. But you can’t. Augusta is the most closely guarded real estate in Georgia.

When I think of a golf course born of dreams, I turn instead to an 18-hole wonder in East Canton, Ohio, a few miles from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in neighboring Canton. From its entrance off Lincoln Street S.E. — historic U.S. Highway 30 — the Clearview Golf Club doesn’t look like anything special. Just another of the 25 or so pleasant public golf courses that dot the region’s rolling, woodsy farmland. But oh, the stories it can tell.

The man who built it, William Powell, was a returning World War II veteran who was barred from virtually every public course in the county. It wasn’t because of his play. Upon graduation from high school, he was skilled enough to compete on the PGA Tour. There was a problem: His color. In 1934, the PGA of America added a “Caucasians only” clause to its constitution. It remained in effect until 1961. The courses near Powell’s home didn’t make him any more welcome.

A man of immense pride, Powell decided to build, single-handedly, his own golf course where anyone could play. “I was forced to build it, as far as I was concerned,” he told me, seated in Clearview’s pro shop. Friends thought him crazy.

In 1946 he found the land — a dilapidated, 78-acre, former dairy farm. Raising the money was less easy. Though entitled to a G.I. loan, no local bank would issue him one. Eventually, he took in two Black doctors as partners and convinced his brother to mortgage his house. He broke ground that fall.

Every cent went toward building the nation’s first and only Black-owned, designed and constructed course. To support his wife and three children, Powell worked from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. as a watchman at a local roller-bearing factory. From sunup until it was time for his shift, he moved boulders, pulled up fence posts, cleared rubble, planted trees. He slept four hours a night. Sometimes he went the day without eating. He didn’t have the money to hire help.

“You’ve got to realize I started this course before Jackie Robinson broke into baseball,” he said.

It took Powell two years to complete the first nine holes of Clearview — named for the panoramic view of woodlands and farms from the highest point on the property. His neighbors didn’t want him there. For years, Clearview was known locally as the Nigger Nine.

But plenty of good folks came out to play. They came for the sweep of the fairways; for the cornucopia of wild cherry, beech, red oak and sugar maple trees; and for the challenging golf. Powell didn’t have the money to carve sand traps, so he built his course around precise landing areas and precipitous greens. He added a second nine 30 years later, in 1978.

Today the 6,328-yard, par-70 track is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and a state historical marker adorns the first tee.

Spring, so lovely at Augusta, is glorious in northeastern Ohio, too. Until Powell died in 2009, at age 95, he held court in his tidy pro shop. Today you’ll find his daughter, Renee, there. The second Black to join the LPGA Tour (Althea Gibson was the first), she is now the club pro. She is as accomplished and tenacious as her father.

“Had I not had faith that things were going to get better, that there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” William Powell told me, “I would never have entered the tunnel.”

A version of this article ran on ESPN.com.

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Ron Berler

Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and ESPN.com.