Witnessing Condoleezza Rice make her first hole-in-one was just one of the things that impressed Muffet McGraw.
The head coach of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team found herself in an impromptu round with the former U.S. secretary of state on a fall Saturday in 2011. Rice had traveled to South Bend, Ind., to help promote the Joyce Scholars program at her alma mater. She wanted to get in a round of golf before watching the Irish football team later in the day.
When McGraw met Rice on the course, she wasn’t sure what to say. Though McGraw is one of the greatest basketball coaches in the country, with more than 700 wins and a national championship, Rice is world-renowned for her accolades – former provost at Stanford University; national security adviser; first black woman to serve as secretary of state. Now a professor of political economy at Stanford, she is frequently referred to as “Dr. Rice.”
“I didn’t know what to call her,” McGraw said. “She said, ‘Call me Condi.’ She was real easy to talk to. She’s a very steady, composed and poised person. She’s a great listener and very interested in getting to know others.”
When Rice was announced with Darla Moore in August as the first women accepted as members of Augusta National Golf Club, McGraw was elated.
“It’s a really big deal for women,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
MUCH HAS CHANGED in golf – and society – since Rice was born in 1954 in Birmingham, Ala. She grew up in the civil rights era the lone child of John Wesley Rice, a high school coach and teacher and Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Angelena, a high school teacher. The Rices instilled in their daughter the thought she could succeed at anything, even becoming president one day.
Rice was 8 when she felt the blast of a church bombing blocks away from her father’s church in Birmingham. The 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church killed four young girls, including her friend Denise McNair.
“The crime was calculated to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations,” Rice said at Vanderbilt University’s 2004 commencement. “But those fears were not propelled forward; those terrorists failed.”
Rice went received her undergraduate degree from the University of Denver, where she initially majored in piano before switching to political science. She graduated with a master’s degree in political science from Notre Dame in 1975 and soon began a career in academia and politics.
Back in Alabama, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club opened in 1977 in Birmingham. Thirteen years later, Shoal Creek made headlines after founder Hall Thompson said the club would not be pressured into accepting black members before the 1990 PGA Championship was held at the course. A compromise was made before the tournament, with the club offering local black businessman Louis J. Willie Jr. an honorary membership. Four years later, Thompson complimented Stanford freshman Tiger Woods after he won the Jerry Pate Intercollegiate at Shoal Creek.
In 2009, Shoal Creek showed how far it had come when Rice joined the club as a national member. Mike Thompson, Hall Thompson’s son, who runs the club, said Shoal Creek has about 600 members (including several black members) but no one like Rice.
“We were thrilled to have her. She just means the world,” said Thompson, adding that Rice plays Shoal Creek four to five times a year. “There’s no bigger ambassador for the state of Alabama other than maybe Nick Saban and Gov. Robert Bentley.”
When Thompson met Rice, he didn’t know what to call her. He started with “madame secretary.”
“Mike,” she replied, “call me Condi.”
Thompson is the chairman of the Regions Tradition, one of five majors on the Champions Tour. When the tournament moved to Shoal Creek in 2011, Rice returned to Birmingham to serve as honorary chairwoman of the event and hit the ceremonial opening tee shot. Jerry Pate, the 1976 U.S. Open champion and a founding member at Shoal Creek, followed Rice with the second ceremonial tee shot.
“Golf brings people together for a common cause. Condoleezza Rice epitomizes that,” he said. “She’s humble, she’s reverent, friendly, brilliant. I’ve never met a person like her.”
Before the 2011 event, a tornado touched down just outside Birmingham, killing 238 people. Rice rallied the troops, taking Tom Watson and Hale Irwin with her on a goodwill mission at a school used as a first-aid center.
“She took time to take several pros with her,” Thompson said. “That’s the kind of person she is. She just gives so much of herself that way.”
AFTER FINISHING her term as secretary of state in January 2009, Rice began giving more of herself to golf. Also a member at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Rice has become one of the game’s rock stars, drawing interest wherever she goes.
Earlier this year, she was scheduled to play with Davis Love III in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but Love suffered a neck injury and Jason Bohn, a former University of Alabama golfer, replaced him. Rice, a 17-handicap, greeted Bohn with a “Roll Tide,” an ice-breaker that set the rest of the round in motion.
“I knew some of her accomplishments, but I didn’t know what kind of person she is,” Bohn said. “The amazing thing to me about her is her ability to communicate on every topic on my level. That’s what impressed me more than ever.
“I know she can rise to any level. I can imagine that’s a trait any person would love to have.”
Bohn said he asked a few questions about her life experiences. They also talked some football. She revealed she’s a diehard fan of the Cleveland Browns, who haven’t made the playoffs in 10 years.
“I think that’s awesome,” Bohn said. “They haven’t been a good team for years. She’s not a bandwagon fan.”
And, of course, they talked about Rice becoming a member at Augusta National.
“When we did talk about Augusta, there was a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face,” he said. “She’s extremely honored to be a member.”
The Bohn-Rice pairing produced a 7-under-par total for three rounds and did not make the 54-hole cut. Bohn said she’s a fast player, maybe too fast at times.
“When she was patient and slowed it down, she hit some great shots,” Bohn said. “When she strikes it well, she can play.
“I could see her as a single-digit handicapper easy. She’s a fantastic putter. She’s very solid off the tee and she putts it well. Pitching and chipping she can save several shots. And her longer fairway hybrid shots need work.”
McGraw also said Rice is a fast player. Along with playing partner Colleen Curran, the threesome finished their fall 2011 round in less than three hours.
“I enjoyed it because I like to play fast and so does she,” McGraw said. “We were pretty much ready to hit as the other one was done.”
When the group reached the 14th hole at Notre Dame’s Warren Golf Course, Rice grabbed a 7-wood and stepped to the tee. She ripped a shot toward the hole, her ball taking a few hops before rolling into the cup.
“It was a memorable experience for her,” McGraw said. “I had already my memorable experience just by playing with her.”
RICE’S ACE likely won’t be brought up this week. Her career in politics will be put on the back burner, too. People want to see Rice wearing her green jacket.
The reaction to her becoming a member has been favorable.
Pate, who grew up 50 miles outside of Birmingham in Anniston, is one year older than the 58-year-old Rice. Though he didn’t experience the same life she did growing up, he said he’s impressed with all she’s overcome.
“Just reading her biography was an inspiration to me, knowing she and her family put God first, family second and education third,” he said. “She learned how to succeed through hard work despite a lot of long odds. It’s an American Dream story.”
When Pate learned Rice had become an Augusta National member, he was elated.
“She’s more than deserving to be one of the first women at Augusta,” he said. “She’s done a lot for this country. She’s definitely a person worth looking up to.
“It’s really a great thing for the club and a great thing for golf.”
Bohn, a 39-year-old PGA Tour golfer living in Acworth, Ga., shared Pate’s reaction.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “I think this woman should be president of the United States. To be a member at Augusta National, what an honor. They’ve got themselves such a wonderful member. I’d want her to be a member at my club.”
McGraw sent Rice a congratulatory message when she learned the news. She added a line about getting together for another round – in Augusta, this time.
“I think every woman in America was excited to hear that,” McGraw said. “It opens up new doors for women. I couldn’t wait to e-mail her so I could invite myself along.”