SARASOTA, Fla. — Even before you notice the smooth, powerful swing that has helped propel her to the brink of stardom at only 17, you see something else that defines Ginger Howard and her precocious golf game.
It lights up her face on a breezy, sun-splashed morning here at the renowned Concession Golf Club, as she talks about her life and dreams on a bench by the driving range.
There's a good chance you haven't heard much if anything about Howard yet, but all that could change very soon. In early December, she will be in Daytona Beach at the LPGA Qualifying Tournament, vying for chance to become one of 20 of 144 hopefuls to join the women's tour.
If things go they way they've been heading, America may soon become well-acquainted with the million-dollar smile and formidable style that has been lighting up the junior ranks.
And the story could ultimately entwine a Williams Sisters tennis twist, because waiting in the wings is 16-year-old sister Robbi, a prodigy in her own right.
"Robbi's definitely a big encouragement and helps motivate me every single day — whether it's during golf or outside of it," Howard said. "She's been there every step of the way, because we both started together — so we're stuck together! It would be amazing to be tag-team one day, just like Venus and Serena Williams."
But right now, the spotlight is fixed on older sister Ginger as she moves into the third stage of qualifying. At an unassuming 5-foot-5, she doesn't immediately look like an athlete who would dominate the pack — posting more than 75 Top 3 finishes as a junior. Then you watch her blast a drive 250 or 260 yards down the fairway, drop her approaches onto the green with remarkable consistency or calmly birdie a 15-foot putt, and get the picture.
Just as noteworthy as her power and consistently strong short game is her poise for a teen on the cusp of something special.
Howard projects a gentle sense of self-assurance and ease when she talks, and draws inspiration from a message embedded in the homemade, red bracelet she always wears. It sports the letters CBS, short for Confidence Breeds Success, and is fittingly punctuated by her adopted trademark: a smiley face.
"I just try to be positive and never get down on myself," she said.
That approach has helped her handle the mounting pressures of her latest career phase. Howard, based out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, turned professional in June after receiving an LPGA waiver to play Q-School. And she marked the occasion by immediately winning her first SunCoast Ladies Series match in impressive fashion — firing an 8-under-par 64 in the final round for a nine-stroke victory.
And there's this: In seven pro tournaments to date, Howard has won five.
"Ginger has a very repeatable swing and an already has developed an excellent sense of self-awareness," said her coach Nathan Bersch at IMG's David Leadbetter Academy. "When I first met her, I wanted to plant the seed of who she can become. And Ginger believes that she can be the best. Nobody knows what can happen, but what I do know is that she has all the tools to become a big champion."
It didn't take long for her parents, Robert and Gianna Howard, to realize that about their two daughters. They would occasionally accompany their father when he hit golf balls at a range in the Philadelphia suburb of Darby and soon asked to try it themselves. He noticed they each had a knack for the swing, developing quickly into a passion for playing.
So began an unfolding family journey that ultimately led them some eight years ago to the warmth of Florida, where the girls could work on their game amid the best competition all year around.
It has been an experience marked by financial sacrifices and personal challenges for Robert, a Temple University graduate who has juggled jobs managing stores on hold, and Gianna, a licensed practical nurse who only six weeks ago underwent successful surgery for thyroid cancer that had so suddenly clouded their lives.
The cancer was detected early and the prognosis is now excellent for Gianna, who is on leave from her job as an IMG Academy nurse as she recuperates. Still, she's as busy as ever with her four kids, including 9-year-old R.J. (honing his golf skills at IMG now, too) and 3-year-old Gulian. And she couldn't be more excited for her oldest.
"We're all very proud of her — not only for her golf game, but the young lady that she's developed into," Gianna said. "She's got a good head on her shoulders. She has good, high morals, and the same with Robbi — they're both that way."
The amazing Howard ride continues on this particular morning in a golf cart — scooting from hole-to-hole over the immaculate Concession course, created by golf legend Jack Nicklaus with British links great Tony Jacklin. The name is rooted in Nicklaus' famous gesture of conceding a putt on the final hole of the 1969 Ryder Cup to create a tie between the United States, Great Britain and Ireland.
But Howard isn't conceding anything during her recent practice round on the notoriously challenging holes, playing even on the par 72 course.
Robert, who only last month left a retail management job in St. Petersburg to help his wife through her ordeal, now devotes himself fulltime to carrying his daughter's bag and helping to manage her blossoming career.
"It's exciting, at times overwhelming and fascinating to be in this situation," he said. "We understand that there are certain challenges ahead we'll be facing and financial responsibilities we have to incur. But I think we've done a good job so far, and made a lot of sacrifices along the way to get to where we are now."
That included struggling to makes end meet with a mortgage and car payments, and the parents working hard to support their growing family. Early on, Robert constantly driving his daughters from one youth tournament to the next around Pennsylvania and later Maryland, where they moved to the city of Clinton when the girls were still young. But as they rapidly progressed, the parents knew another move had to take place for their daughters' gifts to blossom.
"They were doing well at a lot of junior tournaments at a lot of the tournaments in Philadelphia and Maryland," Robert said. "And with Ginger, we realized that we needed to increase her visibility in terms of competition and we knew the competition was fierce in Florida. So we thought in order for both girls to be at their peak level, we needed to give them the best opportunity to win."
So the family moved south in 2003 to Jacksonville, where they soon crossed paths with coaches from Champion's Gate golf course — including the acclaimed David Leadbetter. Ginger and Robbi made more strides there, and another key move followed in 2005: to Bradenton, where the girls could develop their game with Leadbetter and his academy staff.
That's when their budding careers began to move to another level, leading this summer to a crossroads of sorts for Howard: whether to follow the path to collegiate golf to one of two top Division I universities that coveted her, Florida or Duke — or bypassing college and taking a shot at turning pro.
The decision was by no means clear-cut for Ginger, who, along with Robbi, has been homeschooled by her mother. But the tipping point came in June when she received the Q-School waiver.
"My parents definitely backed me up 100 percent on whatever I chose to do, and it was my decision to turn professional," she said. "The decision was based on getting the waiver. We got the letter and I was like, 'Wow, if they're letting me in, then why not?' I felt very confident in myself and felt like I could do it. So I did."
Education is important to both her parents, but they felt it was important for Ginger to make the final call on her own.
"The whole idea was, 'Are you able to compete at the next level?' " Robert said. "Talking with Ginger constantly about what decision she wanted to make, that question was critical. She's always dreamed of going pro, but the key was saying, 'Are you able to go under par and stay under par?' If she didn't think she could, then she could go to college and develop her game more there.
"I told her, 'You need to make this decision, not anyone else.' And she said, 'Daddy, I'm ready.' "
Howard proceeded to petition the LPGA, continued to clean up in an array of amateur tournaments and then received word she'd been accepted into the qualifying school.
"It was like a light bulb went on, a weight came off and her scores just started dropping like crazy," he said.
And the progression has continued, with Howard setting her sights on Daytona Beach and a chance to join the tour. She relishes the opportunity not just to compete, but to establish herself as a role model as one of the few African-American golfers in join the LPGA. Since 1950, there have been only four, and Howard would make five. She's already become the first African-American golfer to participate in the Junior Ryder Cup, and she's ready to make more history.
"I definitely think about being an African-American on the tour, but I don't want to just be on tour — I want to be in contention," she said. "I want people to notice me and to be in the spotlight."
One of her fans is golf standout Cheyenne Woods, niece of Tiger Woods and a junior at Wake Forest. She tweeted the message "I think it's time for a change!" upon hearing that Howard had won the second stage of Q School recently. Says Howard of Woods: "Cheyenne has definitely motivated me. She's done great, and I'm excited for her to try out for Q School, too."
Of course, an even bigger fan is Robbi, a constant source of support. "We motivate each other so well," Robbi said. "And we're best friends, and we always want the best for each other. So we push each other a lot."
Ginger looks forward to the day the Howard Sisters will begin making a new name for themselves in the pros. But before she spends any prize money on herself, Ginger plans to use it to support the family that has supported her, and to make donations to her new cause prompted by the battle her mother has fought: research to cure thyroid cancer.
In other ways, Ginger Howard is like many other teenage girls. When she's not doing homework, working toward graduating in the spring, she loves talking and texting on her iPhone, Skyping with friends and watching suspense and scary shows with her mom and dad like Secret Circle and American Horror Story.
But business is part of her life now, too. She's recently signed on with an agent, David Livingston of IMG. She's landed her first big sponsorship, Sun Life, and is looking for more to offset the heavy costs of the overseas competitions that loom ahead should she qualify for the tour. And with a naturally photogenic quality, there could well be endorsement opportunities in her future as well.
"You look at Ginger and say, 'That's a marketable person,' " said golf coach Bersch. "She's mature beyond her years. And she has true character — someone who treats another person with complete respect regardless of what they can do for you. That's how Ginger is."
Blazing a path toward a dream, and smiling as she goes.