Golf Phenom's Drive to Stardom

Ginger Howard, the youngest black woman to turn pro, has her sights set on the LPGA tour.

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Ginger Howard, one of golf's most celebrated phenoms, is sharpening her skills to excel against the game's finest women players.

The latest challenge for Howard, 17, the youngest African-American woman to turn professional, begins in March with the Symetra Tour (last year known as the Futures). If Howard finishes among the tour's top 10 money winners, she'll become just the fifth African-American woman to compete on the LPGA Tour.

In November, in recognition of her talent and limitless potential, IMG -- which bills itself as the world's premier sports, fashion and media company -- signed Howard to a marketing and management contract. She is the first African-American woman golfer IMG has taken under its wing.

Howard doubtless surprised many in the golf world early last June, when she announced her decision to play for pay (made possible by a successful appeal for an exemption from the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which usually bars players under 18) and politely spurned two college scholarship offers, one from Duke, the other from the University of Florida.

Perhaps they were even more surprised when Howard claimed first prize in her professional debut in the SunCoast Ladies Series at Lake Forest Golf Club, minutes from Orlando, Fla. But Howard would soon startle her skeptics once more.

In short order, she reeled off another four victories in just six appearances and stamped the Howard name on one of them by setting the Series' all-time, 54-hole record. She shot an eye-popping 16 under par for the three rounds. Her young age notwithstanding, no other Series contestant was able to match her season's total of five victories.

On Sept. 30, she followed that successful campaign with another surprise, by winning the Stage II Qualifying Tournament in Venice, Fla., by one stroke. That feat seemed to suggest that Howard would snag one of the top 20 spots and "live out her dream" of qualifying for the all-important LPGA Tour.

But Howard's fans were stunned in early December when she missed qualifying by just two shots.

Her sister, Robbi, 16, did her best to cheer on her older sibling. "I tried to keep her pumped up and told her to hope for the best," said Robbi, who was caddying for Howard in the absence of their father, Robert, who had injured a knee. "When she was giving strokes away, I told her that this was just the beginning, that there's more to come in the future."

Despite failing to qualify for the LPGA Tour, Howard told The Root she's not discouraged and still believes that her decision to turn pro and not go to college was the best choice for her career.