Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples are easily associated with the sport known as the gentlemen’s game.

And it’s easy to understand why those mentioned 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. However, the 2022 Ambassador Award recipient might surprise some for a host of reasons.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has earned the recognition. She accepted the award today 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,” says Dr. Rice in an exclusive interview with EBONY. “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 says 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 her to play more golf.

“It’s a game that brings friends together,” remarks Dr. Rice. “I also think it’s a game that’s trying to reach beyond its current boundaries and increase access.”

Reaching beyond boundaries has remained a commitment of the PGA Tour, which has pledged $100 million to drive change by promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. It has expanded its Advocates Professional Golf Association (APGA) relationship. It's provided stipends and scholarships for participants in APGA events and the Korn Ferry Tour Q-School. This four-stage event provides valuable membership access on the Korn Ferry Tour for all players advancing to the Final Stage.

In addition to a memorandum of understanding with the Black Press of America, the PGA Tour has strengthened its partnership with historically Black colleges and universities, including grants to all 51 men’s and women’s HBCU golf programs.

“When I was a kid, nobody played golf in segregated Birmingham,” recalls Dr. Rice. “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 members 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.

Dr. Rice shares that Augusta had played a significant role in growing the game.

“They’ve started the ‘Drive, Chip, and Putt’ (with the United States Golf Association and PGA of America), 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,” notes Dr. Rice.

When asked how golf has become increasingly open to people of color, Dr. Rice replies that it’s simply about access.

The PGA Tour has also partnered with 100 Black Men of America, where they’ve emphasized learning, collaboratio, and co-creating programs to benefit those in need.

“[Golf] had to become a sport that was cool to play,” explains Dr. Rice. “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," she continues. "And I think watching Tiger Woods helped a lot because he looks like somebody who could have played any sport that he wanted to.”

She also points out programs like First Tee, a youth development organization supported by the PGA Tour that impacts the lives of young people through the game of golf, 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,” explains Dr. Rice.

“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, will really help bring people into the game soon enough,” adds Dr. Rice. “It’s a hard game, but you have to stick with it. Getting people to where they can play it is part of the challenge. It’s a lot harder than any sport I’ve ever played.”

She also believes affordability makes the game a challenge for most Black folks. “It’s an expensive game to play. So 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.” 

Financial access is how the APGA has open up the sport to most in our community and given them a path to the PGA Tour. It provides a playing surface and, to some, rent money, entry fees and medical care—all of which have made it easier and more affordable for individuals of color to compete.

As Dr. Rice prepared to accept the Ambassador of Golf Award, she tells EBONY that she’ll enjoy her moment in the sun. “I mean, there are some pretty good names that have gotten that award who can actually play golf really, really, well,” she shares. “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.”