Another Tiger? Georgia teen tries to make her mark

PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. -- With a mouthful of braces and a yearning to get her driver's license, Mariah Stackhouse comes across as the typical teenager.

Then she picks up a golf club.

That's when she becomes the next black hope.

In a sport desperately lacking in African-Americans outside of Tiger Woods, Stackhouse certainly stands out. Having just turned 15, she's already climbed as high as No. 29 in the American Junior Golf Association's national female rankings and currently stands 33rd, making her the top-rated black player on either the girls or boys list.

"If I get an opportunity to play professional golf," she said, "I'd definitely like to give that a try."

Her rise to prominence provides a handy roadmap for African-Americans trying to reach the top levels of golf, but also reveals just how many obstacles there are along the way.

"It's a big financial investment and a huge sacrifice," said her father, Ken Stackhouse. "I've known (African-Americans) who played before us, and their concerns were always the same. They never really got all the support they needed financially. As a consequence, they were never able to rise to the level Mariah has. Fortunately, she had support early enough to make a difference."

For Mariah, it started with a doting father -- "I was always a daddy's girl," she said unabashedly -- who loved golf and willing to spend the time to teach it to his daughter, beginning at age 2. Stackhouse also has a job in the residential construction and design business that allows him to take time off when Mariah is playing tournaments during the spring and summer.

"I know most people aren't as lucky as we are," he said, relaxing with his daughter on the patio at the Braelinn Golf Club in this links-oriented suburb southwest of Atlanta.

Even with those built-in advantages, the Stackhouses still needed a hand from others.

A local pro, King Simmons, allowed Mariah to hone her skills on several Atlanta city courses, free of charge. Then Ralph Boston, who won an Olympic golf medal in the long jump at the 1960 Rome Games, met Mariah and her father at a local tournament. Impressed by their passion for the game, he hooked them up with a prominent golf course owner who operated a club where Boston was a member. That allowed Mariah to practice and play at high-quality layouts around the metro area, minus the huge cost.

"If you look at any person who's been successful in anything, there's been someone along the way who gave them a helping hand," said the 69-year-old Boston, who also won long jump medals at the 1964 and '68 Olympics before going on to a successful business career. "Pass it forward. My mother used to say a lot of things like, 'When you get in a position where you can help someone, help them open the door and let someone else in."

Stackhouse knows his daughter never would have made this far without benefactors such as Boston and Simmons. A top-level junior golfer can spend as much as $35,000 a year for course time, equipment, coaching and travel expenses.

"She certainly would have gone into another sport if not for those people's help," he said. "I couldn't have provided it golf-wise. Nowadays, you've got to have a team of people."

Mariah has a swing coach she meets with once a month, but her father handles most of the instruction. She's been able to advance without doling out big money to attend one of those prominent golf academies.

"We still get literature all the time from those camps, but we never did any of that," Stackhouse said. "We just worked. All the guys always compliment Mariah on her work ethic. She works hard."

Mariah still remembers when it first struck her that she might have a future in golf. She was 5 or 6 years old and had just returned from spending three weeks with her grandparents.

"When I went out on the range, I was hitting my 5-iron," she said. "I don't think I ever hit a club that good, and I had not hit a club in three weeks. I just came back and was hitting it so perfectly. I remember my dad saying, 'Wow, you're pretty good."

"She had a nice little draw," Stackhouse chimed in. "I remember it distinctly. That was niiiice. I knew I couldn't hit shots like that."

While there are certainly no guarantees that Mariah will grow up to become just the fourth African-American woman to play on the LPGA Tour -- heck, she's still in ninth grade -- her father has considered the significant role she might play in luring other minorities to the white-dominated sport.

"She could do a lot for women, but particularly African-American women, by inspiring them to get more involved in golf," Stackhouse said.

For the most part, Stackhouse keeps those thoughts to himself. He doesn't want to weigh down his daughter with a heavy social burden. It's hard enough to make a 20-foot putt without considering what impact it might have on an entire race.

"I don't really think about it," Mariah said. "I just love to play golf."