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.
"I don't regret my decision at all; misfortune happens to everyone in the game at some time," she said. "I'm very excited and looking forward to my first tournament. I'm going to give it my very best."
A plethora of trophies won in golf tournaments nationwide, not excuses, have defined the competitive careers of the Howard sisters since they began distinguishing themselves in the peewee ranks. In 2008 the sisters were profiled in a lengthy New York Times Sunday Magazine article, which introduced the prodigies to a national audience.
Ginger, the more accomplished of the two sisters thus far (they say they hope to become professional golf's answer to the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena), has 73 amateur titles to her credit. The Florida Women's State Golf Association chose Robbi as its 2011 Junior Player of the Year. In addition to her other distinctions, Robbi tied for first in the Junior PGA Championship Qualifier and advanced to the final round in the State Amateur Match Play Championship.
Only four African-American women have ever earned LPGA status. The late pioneer Althea Gibson joined the tour first in 1964 after conquering all foes in professional tennis. She was followed by Renee Powell, the Ohio University and Ohio State team captain, in the mid-1960s. Next, in 1991 came LaRee Pearl Sugg, the first black member of an NCAA national championship squad at UCLA. Shasta Averyhardt, the Jackson State graduate who qualified in 2010 to compete in a limited number of LPGA events, was the fourth.
Five days each week, Howard focuses on scholastic assignments. She and Robbi are homeschooled by their mother, Gianna, a licensed practical nurse. Both are A students, their parents said.
After classes, Howard's off to the practice range, where she refines her game for six hours each day, she told The Root.
Her confidence in ultimately succeeding as a professional, she said, is grounded in "working on the mental side of the game, which means finishing the round well and being completely energized from the first hole to the 18th."
Nathan Bertsch, her golf instructor, is high on Howard's ability, especially "her putting, which is the strength of her game. Most tour players take years to develop a routine and putt well under pressure, but Ginger has a very good pre-shot routine, which is unusual for a player her age."
Bertsch, who said Howard is the best student among his 14 charges at the IMG Academy, doesn't really have any weaknesses. "Everyone can nitpick over what they can work on and improve, but if you concentrate on weaknesses, you'll never focus on your strengths."
Bertsch predicted that Howard's "game will become stronger as she gets older and matures physically." He said, "Her greatest assets are the intangibles no one sees and her belief, deep in her heart, that she can be the world's No. 1 player."
Scott Walker, founder, owner and director of the SunCoast Series, was even more optimistic about the young golfer's chances. "As long as Ginger stays healthy and motivated, I believe she'll have a very bright future on the LPGA Tour."
Sugg, the third African-American LPGA Tour professional and current associate director of athletics at the University of Richmond, urged caution rather than high expectations at the outset for Howard's success. "Her biggest obstacle will be the world looking in on her," Sugg said. "Given American society and its views, she'll still be an object of attention. With that comes the pressure of being the only one or one of the only ones."
Sugg, pointing to specific pressures in Howard's path, said, "The golf community, which wants to be viewed as diverse, will have expectations that may not match her playing ability at that time." The African-American community, she continued, "has a lot of expectations, but the pace of her development may not be able to keep pace with them, either."
One solution to avoiding unnecessary pressures, Sugg suggested, "will lie within her confidence in her current ability, being centered within herself and the plan of progression she's developed for herself."
Powell, the second African-American LPGA player, said, "I wish her all the success in the world." She said that to be successful, Howard "will have to develop a lot of mental toughness, because golf is much more mental than physical."
F. Finley McRae is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that The Florida Women's State Golf Association chose Robbi Howard, not Ginger, as its 2011 Junior Player of the Year and that Robbi tied for first in the Junior PGA Championship Qualifier.