For the past 20 years, Avis Brown-Riley has had a vision in which she’s walking down a fairway as friends, family, and strangers gathered outside the ropes shouting “Avis! Avis! Avis!”
Never mind the chemotherapy that left her unable to swing a club or put on her shoes. Never mind the debilitating nerve damage. Never mind the 25-year career at FedEx Express that took her far away from LPGA Q-School and the rush of competition.
Through it all, the vision remained.
And now, she knows why.
“The time has come, and the moment is now,” said the exuberant Brown-Riley, “that this vision has come to light.”
Brown-Riley, 58, will compete in the fourth edition of the U.S. Senior Women’s Open Aug. 25-28 at NCR Country Club (South Course) in Kettering, Ohio. She’ll reunite with a former college teammate and past champion Helen Alfredsson. She’ll see players she once competed against at the 1988 U.S. Women’s Open at Baltimore Country Club. She’ll angle to meet defending champion Annika Sorenstam for the first time.
Brown-Riley’s LPGA dreams never did come true, but after decades in the corporate world, she earned her LPGA Professional Class A membership in her late 50s, becoming the 12th of 13 black women to earn her teaching card. She is believed to be the first black player to qualify for the Senior Women’s Open.
“For me to have become the 12th black woman to hold an LPGA (teaching) card,” said Brown-Riley, “I was thinking wow, what has everyone been doing for 25 years while I was at FedEx?”
Avis Brown-Riley qualifies for U.S. Senior Women’s Open in her second attempt. (Courtesy photo)
Brown-Riley, a mother of two and breast cancer survivor, isn’t just a visionary. She’s a natural-born motivator, and her new goal is to travel the world as a speaker and influencer, empowering and encouraging young black girls to follow their dreams.
Brown-Riley is the second youngest of five siblings born to Gordon Brown Sr., and Harriet Brown. Growing up in South Carolina, Gordon and his cousins found a few golf clubs in a garage and took to hitting balls in a nearby high school field. Gordon immediately fell in love with the game and became a fine player, honing his skills further while in the military.
“He was instrumental in breaking the color barrier so blacks could play golf in Charleston,” said Brown-Riley.
The Browns moved to San Diego before Avis was born, and by age 7, she had a club in her hand. At 10, Brown-Riley became the first black player to win the prestigious Junior World Golf Championship, and to this day her photo is on the wall next to fellow champion Tiger Woods.
Four of the Brown children went on to play college golf, with Avis earning a scholarship to the United States International University, a Division I school. While there, she won the first National Minority Collegiate College Championship.
“My parents were very strict in the sense that they had to apply structure,” said Brown-Riley. “We were like the Jackson 5 family, but we were the golfing family.”
A young Avis Brown holds up her Junior World trophy.
Growing up, Brown-Riley said the juniors she played against were always good to her. There were times, however, that she remembers not being able to go into the clubhouse because of the color of her skin. Sometimes her parents couldn’t afford range balls.
“That’s how we got so good with our short game,” said Brown-Riley, who counted former LPGA player Renee Powell as her hero.
It wasn’t until Brown-Riley turned professional that she began to experience racism while traveling in the south.
“Walking into the golf shops or having breakfast there,” she said, “they would approach me in the sense that there weren’t any openings for a job here: ‘I’m not here to apply for a job in your kitchen. I’m a professional golfer.’ ”
Avis Brown-Riley played the mini-tour circuit before joining the corporate world at FedEx.
Brown-Riley sometimes experiences something similar now when she goes into pro shops with her LPGA teaching card, after calling ahead to set up a round of golf. There are times when the person behind the counter flips the card front to back, over and over, as if there’s a problem with it.
“That kind of rubs me the wrong way,” said Brown-Riley. “Hey, at least show me some respect. It’s not a card that I made. What it is that you’re looking for?”
The Brown family has been introducing the game of golf to young black families since the 1970s, when Gordon and Harriet launched the Southeast Junior Golf program. Gordon taught the game and life lessons for free to inner-city children in the area.
In 1996, the family restructured the program into a 501(c)(3) non-profit called the San Diego Inner City Junior Golf Foundation and Academy. While Brown-Riley only recently became an official LPGA teaching pro, she has been instructing women and kids in her native city for decades.
Over 2,500 children have benefitted from their foundation. Brown-Riley hopes to set up something similar in Las Vegas, where she recently moved.
“I think she’s an inspiration in every way,” said Marvol Barnard, national president of the LPGA Professionals, “particularly to juniors.”
Avis Brown-Riley holds up her book, “Building of a Champion: How I became a champion in life.”
Brown-Riley has chronicled her life in the book “Building of a Champion: How I became a champion in life: The Avis Brown-Riley Story.” She hired an agent and hopes to turn her family’s golf story into a movie.
“I refer to my history as the hidden treasure chest,” she said.
Valuable treasure that a grateful Brown-Riley is ready show the world.