Women's History Month: The LaRee Sugg Story

There was never a doubt in her mind that she'd be a professional golfer. As a little girl walking down the brick stone sidewalks of Petersburg, Va., to get metal golf spikes installed on the soles of her buckskin saddle shoes, LaRee Sugg knew her destiny, and that vision became even clearer when her grandfather first took her to a local municipal course, only doing so because the country club at the time didn't welcome Black or Jewish members. 

The golf bug struck Sugg when she was just six years old. Her grandfather, Dr. James C. Nelson, who was a professor and golf coach at Virginia State University was often Sugg’s babysitter, taking his granddaughter anywhere and everywhere, which usually included the golf course. 

The family had their own golf cart that they'd zip around in, often playing the front nine of their home course over and over because of a mosquito infestation on the back nine that still haunts Sugg's memory. 

"The thing I treasure the most is the time and relationship that I was able to facilitate with my grandfather,” Sugg recalls. “All the talking him and I would do because it would often just be him and I playing at Dogwood Trace (Golf Course) together, playing the front nine over and over again. We would play until dark…with him telling me life stories about him growing up in Princeton, New Jersey. He was a storyteller. He was teaching me all these things about perseverance and resilience and how to navigate being a Black woman in the world. We were doing all of that through these conversations on the golf course." 

Dr. Nelson did everything he could to prepare his granddaughter for the real world. From forcing Sugg to make hotel reservations when they traveled to introducing her to her heroes Arthur Ashe and Renee Powell at a young age, Sugg's grandfather was committed to ensuring that she would be a woman of confident autonomy. 

"I was always around the greatest Black minds at the time, who were still teaching at the HBCUs and weren't at all the white institutions because they hadn't fully opened up at that point,” remembers Sugg. “I was always around doctors and lawyers and experts in their fields, mathematicians and great athletes. That was very much the ethos surrounding me, so in a lot of ways it became that feeling like you can do anything or be anything because I saw (those possibilities) every day."

Being surrounded by Black excellence made Sugg's decision to play professional golf that much easier. Embarking on a journey to pursue pro golf as a Black woman during the 1990s was relatively uncharted territory, but Sugg knew what she was getting herself into once she made her mind up. She was more than ready for it, but that didn't exclude her from the obstacles she'd soon face. 

Playing golf was the easy part for Sugg. She had an innate ability, one that’s apparent when you look at her highly decorated amateur career. Sugg was named a four-time Golf Magazine Junior All-American, won more than 30 junior titles (including the North and South Junior and the Ohio State Junior Championships) and qualified as an amateur to participate in the United Virginia Bank Golf LPGA Golf Classic. 

As a member of the first generation to benefit from Title IX, Sugg was aware that if she wanted to make it on women's golf's biggest stage, she needed to position herself alongside the best. At the time, Virginia had limited options on where she could compete competitively on the collegiate level. Her choices were to either go south or across the country to the West Coast. 

In a moment of refreshing candor, Sugg had admitted that the overwhelming presence of humidity in the south – where her golf game could have thrived, but her hair would not – played a role in her decision to go out west to further her academic and golf career. The Amy Alcott scholarship she received also made that choice much easier. 

Tucked into the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, Sugg found her home at UCLA, a whopping 2,600 miles away from her family on the East Coast. But the appeal of Los Angeles far outweighed her homesickness. A self-proclaimed adventurer, the endless possibilities and diverse population that came along with living in the City of Angels were exactly what she was looking for. 

"It was a great springboard,” Sugg explains. “At the time, the West Coast was the biggest stage for women's golf. Growing up, I was a big fish in a little pond, so I wanted to see how good I could be at UCLA. And it was a hard, hard road, but it really made me tough."

For most of her life, Sugg had existed in a bubble and was under the protection of her family. She had never experienced blatant discrimination, but once she moved across the country, she saw exactly how racism could rear its ugly head, even in golf. When reflecting on her college career, Sugg recalled it being an isolating time, and in her days of junior golf, even though she had a community of Black golfers around her, Sugg quickly learned as she climbed the rungs of elite competitive golf that she would be quite lonely as the only Black woman competing at the Division I level. 

During her time as a UCLA Bruin, things weren't always pleasant, and that all came to a head in 1991, as Sugg led the Bruins to their first NCAA women's golf title. 

On the 13th hole, Sugg was issued an ill-timed, two-stroke penalty for placing and hitting her ball in front of the tee markers. She accepted the penalty – in part, because she didn't want to come off as combative – but it was a wrong that Sugg knew she had to eventually right. 

Her team was down six strokes to San Jose State with two holes to play. In a twist of fate, or maybe karma, Sugg and her Bruins rallied to come back from the deficit and forced a playoff. Sugg recalled hitting the best lob wedge of her life to save par on the last to send her team to extra holes. 

The story couldn't have been written more poetically. After a 72-hole battle, on the first hole of the playoff, Sugg had a 25-foot birdie putt that would secure the title. Surrounded by teammates, coaches, other players and family members, Sugg sank her birdie try, cementing herself in UCLA history. 

It was a day that could have ended drastically differently, but it ultimately turned out to be a high point of Sugg's career, a moment she looks back that signifies her resiliency and ability to overcome, something that would carry over into her tenure on the LPGA Tour. 

Sugg graduated from UCLA that same year and then dove head-first into pursuing professional golf. 

Fourteen years had passed since Renee Powell had played on Tour, and there was an obvious void that needed to be filled in the space, but Sugg had her own agenda. She wanted to be a champion. Winning was the most important thing on her mind, and the fact that she couldn't achieve this feat is something that still weighs on her to this day.

It took Sugg three times to earn her playing card through LPGA Qualifying School before her rookie season in 1995, but it's a struggle that Sugg is grateful for.

When times got tough, a sanguine Sugg found other avenues to achieve her dream, refusing to be discouraged by her first two Q-School attempts and opting to forge a new path. With her adventurous spirit guiding her, she ultimately chose to travel the world playing professionally on the then Futures Tour, Ladies European Tour and Asian Tours in between her Q-School tries.

After finally reaching the pinnacle of women’s golf, Sugg's career on the LPGA Tour spanned from 1995 to 1996 and also from 2000 to 2001, in which she competed in multiple U.S. Women’s and AIG Women’s Opens. Her best finish on Tour came in 2000, at the Wegmans Rochester International where Sugg finished eighth.

But being the only Black woman playing on Tour was a taxing experience, often leaving Sugg to focus on other extenuating circumstances instead of golf. She wasn't just playing her game but felt like she was playing the game of every Black woman before and ahead of her who had fought for a place inside the ropes.

Much like Powell did before her, she was now the one with the burden of carrying the torch, a role she accepted happily and with grace, but the amount of pressure on her to perform off the course as much as on it didn't allow her the same freedom her peers had to exclusively focus on competing.;

"I'm very social-justice-minded, and I wonder what kind of career I would have had if I hadn't had that weight on me,” says Sugg. “It was almost more important for me to win as a Black woman on Tour than it was to just win, right? And so, I think I carried a lot of that with me and the importance of that."

The weight of trying to accomplish that feat ultimately led to her losing her Tour eligibility, forcing her to go back to Q-School to re-earn her status. Sugg participated in Q-School a total of 10 times throughout her career, an anecdote she often reminds her son James, who is named for her grandfather, of as a lesson in resiliency. 

After 10 years of pursuing her lifelong dream of playing professional golf, Sugg then knew it was time to try her hand at something else: coaching. 

Her grandfather was a teacher and mentor to young people, so it only seemed fitting that Sugg followed in his footsteps. She had thrown the idea of coaching into the universe, not really thinking much of it, but when the University of Richmond – a small private Division I school in Virginia – called in the spring of 2001, she said yes and was hired as their first head women's golf coach. 

It was quite the challenge to establish a team and coach young golfers, but Sugg channeled her beloved grandfather, and often called upon him to be her voice of reason. 

"I had the privilege of having breakfast with granddaddy every day before I went to work," Sugg fondly recalls. "He was still mentoring me and teaching me, and I was a grown woman in my 30s. I really valued the last two years of his life. We had breakfast together almost every day, and we would talk about the team and coaching. Sometimes, they would get me a bit upset, they would do something, and I'd be frustrated, and I'd just vent to him. And he would say, now be nice to them, go easy on them."

Sugg would then head to practice with a fresh perspective but would remind her team that Dr. Nelson was looking out for them, "I used to tell them once I got to work, and I say you're so lucky I had breakfast with my grandfather today because he got me off the ledge,” Sugg said. “All those moments were so special."

And in what can only be described as a moment of serendipity, the first tournament to which Sugg took her team was hosted on the same golf course she played her first ever junior golf tournament when she was nine years old. Maybe even sweeter was the fact that her grandfather was right there by her side, cheering her on as she coached her team.

Coaching proved to be her reset, the proper next chapter of her life. After growing up as a witness to the impact that Dr. Nelson had on his students, Sugg knew that she desired to do the same at Richmond. She was an integral part of bringing competitive collegiate golf to Virginia, and her work as a coach was quickly rewarded when she was named the CAA Coach of the Year in 2002, just one year into her coaching tenure. She went on to serve as the men's golf coach, before moving into more leadership roles in 2005.

Sugg climbed the sports administrative ladder, starting as an Assistant Athletic Director and then growing into her current role at the university, serving as the Deputy Director of Athletics for policy and sports management, the Senior Woman Administrator (SWA) and Chief of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

Sugg's career has now brought her to this full-circle moment, as she has been around the world and found herself back home again. Less than an hour away from where she grew up, Sugg is raising her son alongside her husband Paul McRae – a PGA of America teaching professional who also happened to be her swing coach – while simultaneously mentoring the next generation of athletes.

She has a lifetime of achievements worth celebrating, which all came to a head this past September as Sugg was one of four members inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame as a part of their 37th-anniversary celebration. 

In her speech, Sugg recounted the warm memories of her grandfather, saying, "My grandfather, golf partner, and biggest fan, Dr. James C. Nelson, instilled in me a love of the game and empowered me to always dream big, is smiling from heaven."

She'd go on to honor her heroes Althea Gibson, Renee Powell, Ann Gregory, Charlie Sifford and Arthur Ashe, who stood strong and in defiance against the segregation, racism and hatred they faced as they pursued their athletic dreams and praised the strength and poise they displayed in the process.

If you asked LaRee what a movie about her life would consist of, she’d want to show support for her peers and the women of today who are chasing their dreams in professional athletics, much like those above did before a golf club even found a way into her hands.

"If they did a movie about me, it wouldn't just be about me, but also about how amazing these women that I had, that I grew up playing junior, college, amateur, and professional golf with are,” Sugg said passionately. “Like how amazing these women are to do what they do, and (viewers) gain some appreciation and love for them because they just don't know."

Sugg's humility wouldn't allow her to group herself with the incredible committee of athletes and activists she named in her Hall-of-Fame speech, but like them, she too is a pioneer and game-changer. From junior golf champion to national champion to collegiate coach, Sugg has helped shape the landscape of golf for young women, having an effect that has lasted and will last for generations.

And LaRee Sugg – a proud mother, wife, daughter, and granddaughter – is as resilient as they come, always facing adversity with positive tenacity and a casual elegance that is remarkable to witness. Her journey with golf may not have ended with her hoisting LPGA Tour trophies or winning the game’s biggest events.

But it has taken her down new avenues that, in a way, are more fulfilling, allowing that same competitive spirit that burned bright as a child to course through her as she roots for the next generation, with her grandfather watching over her.