By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
Over the past 40 years, Title IX has afforded many athletic opportunities to women who otherwise might not have gotten the chance. Today, women’s sports have expanded to unprecedented levels due to women like Myra Blackwelder, who was the first woman to ever receive a full athletic scholarship at the University of Kentucky.
When Myra VanHoose (her maiden name) was growing up in Lexington, Ky., she was constantly playing sports, but the opportunity for girls to play in organized sports just wasn’t there.
“Growing up, I loved sports,” Blackwelder says. “I had all of these uncles who played sports, and they put a ball in my hand when I was a little girl. I played sandlot baseball, but I couldn’t play Little League, because they didn’t let girls play. Boys kind of accepted me as an athlete, even though I was the only girl out there playing sports with the boys.”
Blackwelder’s mother wasn’t too keen on the idea of her daughter playing sports with boys. “It freaked my mom out,” she says. “She wanted me to take piano lessons, but she had this tomboy on her hands.”
Then, something happened that changed everything. “When I was 13, I was playing football in the neighborhood with my brother’s friends,” Blackwelder says. “One of them tackled me and knocked me out, and I literally went home crying. It really scared and hurt me.”
Blackwelder’s mother put a stop to her daughter playing rougher sports with boys. “My mom said to my dad ‘Marvin, you’ve got to get her some golf clubs’, and so at that point, my focus began to be golf.”
She was a quick study, and these days, she knows why. “I had played basketball, baseball, football, hopscotch, roller skates, bicycling and croquet,” she says. “I had done all of that stuff for hand-eye coordination up until the time I played golf, and I brought all of that with me. It (golf) came quickly to me because I was a multi-sport athlete and had developed all kinds of athletic skill at the point I decided to play golf.”
Blackwelder began shooting low scores and winning titles almost immediately. “I won the state high school golf tournament when I was in ninth grade,” she says. “I won it every year I was in high school. I began to win women’s amateur tournaments, then I got exposed to a few national tournaments, and I did very well in them.”
Despite her many successes, Blackwelder wasn’t thinking about getting a scholarship or playing professionally, because Title IX still had not passed. “It wasn’t really a thought to play in college,” she says. “I was more or less thinking I was going to be a pharmacist. That was my intent.”
Blackwelder was being recruited by men’s golf teams, because there were very few women’s college golf teams. “I wasn’t too keen on that, I didn’t like that idea too much,” she says of playing on a men’s team. “I was just going to be a pharmacist. I was ready to be done (with golf).”
“Then, along came Title IX and that kind of changed things around a bit,” Blackwelder says. “We got the word (about the legislation) when I was a senior in high school. All of the sudden the athletic director at Kentucky (Sue Feamster) came to see me and said they were going to start a women’s golf team at Kentucky, and she asked me if I’d want to play.”
Blackwelder was very excited about that opportunity. “I was loving that, I told her that would be fabulous,” she says. “So, at that point, I became focused on going to UK, and I was going to be on the women’s golf team and I was going to get a scholarship.”
But keep in mind that Title IX was brand new, and there were still some items that had to be worked out. Blackwelder found this out the hard way.
“All of the sudden, in August of 1973, I was about to start school, and there was no scholarship for me,” she says. “So, you’ve got this 18-year-old kid that’s kind of upset, so I said I think I’m going to be a pharmacist and I’m going back to my original plan. I literally didn’t play golf during my freshman year.”
It seems that the money to fund the program had come through, but there was still no money to fund scholarships at the time.
In a twist of fate, one of Blackwelder’s friends, Marsha Bordas, became the Kentucky golf coach. “She convinced me to play,” Blackwelder says. “So, I started playing my sophomore year and I caught the bug again. Still no scholarship, just playing for fun. “
Finally, in her junior year, Blackwelder was awarded the scholarship she thought she was getting two years earlier. “My junior year, they put me on a full ride,” she says. “That gave me three years of eligibility left.”
But playing golf and going to pharmacy school at the same time proved to be an extremely difficult task. “I was missing so much school, I just couldn’t do it,” Blackwelder says. “I knew I had to pick, I could not be a pharmacist and play on the golf team, there was just no way.”
A very famous face then intervened and helped Blackwelder make the decision. “Nancy Lopez had turned pro around the same time that this was going on,” Blackwelder says. “I had played a lot of junior golf with her. I went to watch her (at an LPGA event) in Cincinnati after my junior year. She said ‘you’ve got to come out and play the tour, it’s so much fun’. At that point, I gave up on the pharmacy and decided I would ultimately turn pro.”
Blackwelder finished her college career with 10 wins, while playing on a team that never finished lower than 11th nationally. Then, it was on to the pro tour.
“I graduated in 1978, then turned pro and played the mini tour for a year,” she says. “I got my LPGA card in 1980 and started playing on the tour.”
She was an immediate success, earning rookie of the year honors for the 1980 season. “I got off to a good start, but being the first class of Title IX, your whole life is like a salmon swimming upstream,” Blackwelder says. “I was rookie of the year, and you would think you could make a good living, but it didn’t happen. I didn’t make a dollar. I made $41,000 and I spent $41,000.”
At that point, she began to wonder if she had made the right decision. “After my rookie year, I was in New York receiving my rookie of the year award, and I was thinking maybe I should have gone to pharmacy school, because I played great, and didn’t make any money.”
In fact, despite being a Top 50 player for the first five years of her career, it wasn’t until her sixth season on the LPGA Tour that Blackwelder finally made a profit. She played for 13 seasons on the Tour before retiring in 1992.
At that point, Blackwelder and her family returned to Lexington, and she began a golf instruction position at a local training facility. Her players went on to win several national junior tournaments, and some earned college scholarships.
After a successful career of instruction, Blackwelder was hired to coach at her alma mater in 2007. Soon after that, her daughter Mallory transferred to Kentucky from Florida and was able to play for her mother.
But the transfer, which seemed like a natural thing to those on the outside, almost didn’t happen. “We weren’t so sure she shouldn’t stay at Florida,” Myra says. “But we let her make the decision. She felt like she was better off being at home.”
Mallory also struggled with the decision to leave Florida. “That was a very, very difficult decision,” she says. “I loved Florida, I loved Gainesville and I’m so thankful that I got to go there for two years.”
But after a successful summer working with her mother, including a win in the Western Amateur, Mallory knew where she really wanted to be. “Once I started playing so well again, being home with her, it made me realize that it was important for me to be able to work with her on a consistent basis. And obviously, if she was coaching a competing team, that would’ve been extremely difficult.”
Mallory, who currently plays on the Symetra Tour, says the transition was pretty easy for her. “When I transferred back, everyone wondered how it was going to go, but she had coached me since I was a little kid, so it was never really any different that her giving me golf lessons,” Mallory says.
The younger Blackwelder really enjoyed playing for her mother. “It was awesome, it was a really cool experience,” Mallory says. “There are certain situations that I never had to put her in. I always qualified on my own to travel. I never put her in a position where she had to pick me. I can see how that could get complicated.”
“It was really neat,” Myra says. “When she came in, she was almost like an assistant coach, in a way. She was on auto-pilot. It worked out really well. She provided great leadership to the team, which allowed me to work with the kids that most needed my help.”
Myra, with the help of her daughter, built Kentucky’s program into a consistent post-season contender before leaving the program in 2010. “I feel like I turned it around and left it on really good footing,” she says of her time at UK.
Since that time, Myra has been working on another project that aims to improve the level of golf. However, this time, it’s on a much broader level.
“After I left UK as a coach, I began to work on being an advocate for the adoption of a national player development program, like an Olympic-style program,” Blackwelder says. “Golf will actually be an Olympic sport in 2016. I think everything is lining up really well right now, so that eventually, we’ll have an Olympic development program for junior golfers, so that our golfers get supported like international players get supported.”
“I’ve got an advocacy group called America’s Golf Team, and we’re three years into that right now,” she says.
American’s Golf Team defines itself as: “a federation dedicated to creating alliances within the golf industry, sports marketing, business and golf sponsorship communities that will assist, advise and equip American golfers to compete successfully on the global stage.”
“If we can create a foundation where people can write grants to help make it more affordable for juniors, that will do nothing but help the game,” Blackwelder says. “Golf is unique because you’ve got private course owners, you’ve got independent contractors in golf professionals, and we’re hoping to get everyone on board to understand that player development needs to be in the private sector because that’s how people earn their livings. But, if we could create this foundation where people could get grants to upgrade facilities, and to allow kids who really want to get involved to apply for grants to play, that will do nothing but improve the game.”
Blackwelder has some of her LPGA Tour friends joining her in this process, including Nancy Lopez, Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon.
As she looks back on her life in golf, she has covered a wide array of issues. “I’ve done the Title IX thing, I was an advocate for child care on the LPGA Tour, and now, I’ve been talking to everyone I can talk to about this national player development program.”
Blackwelder has been a pioneer in women’s sports, and continues to work for better opportunities in golf for all young people. Given what she’s accomplished in her life so far, America’s Golf Team has a strong voice on its side in Myra Blackwelder.