New CWGA Board Member Q&A

Ward brings unique, impressive background to CWGA board

By Gary Baines – 4/28/2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of five Q&As with the women who joined the CWGA’s volunteer board of directors in 2016.

M’lis Ward has lived a high-flying life since her early days. At the University of Southern California, she was a roommate and teammate of Cheryl Miller (now a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer) as the Women of Troy won national basketball titles in 1983 and ’84. In fact, in the post-title game team photo in 1984, there’s Melissa Ward kneeling right next to Miller behind the championship trophy.

Then there’s the USC student who went into the Air Force ROTC and subsequently served in the U.S. Air Force as an aircraft commander on a C-141. And in 1998, six years after being hired by United Airlines, Ward became the first African-American female to be promoted to captain for a passenger airline in the U.S. She currently flies A319 and A320 aircraft on domestic routes and to Canada and Mexico.

And, for the record, Ward also has been a captain in the golf realm, serving as a B team captain at Overland Park Golf Course, and an A team captain at Wellshire Golf Course. In fact, she’s a good enough player to have won two women’s club championships at Wellshire.

Ward has called Colorado home since 1995 and currently sports a 9.9 USGA handicap index.

— What compelled you to get involved with the CWGA on a volunteer level?

MW: I was asked to consider it by (CWGA president) Juliet Miner. Juliet and I have played golf together for years and I really respect her, and I knew she would run a really organized and great board. Part of volunteering your time for any organization is to make sure it’s going to be quality time that you’re donating. I’ve played in CWGA events for years (often the Mashie and sometimes the Chapman and the Stroke Play), but I’ve never really played in multiple CWGA events in any given year. Part of my personal reason for not playing some CWGA events had been because I felt like maybe the events could be done differently, or in some cases, better. I realized after a few years if I wanted the events to be better I should probably volunteer my time and help to make them better.

I have a real interest in trying to get people back into the CWGA events — the way it seemed like it used to be. I think it’s really important for women’s golf because the young kids aren’t playing golf as much as my generation did or the one before me. I feel like we have to make women’s golf the best that it can be in Colorado. Your vote doesn’t count unless you actually put some work into it. 

I think it’s important not to just complain; it’s important to get in there and make the organization the best it can be.

— What are your personal priorities as a board member?

MW: My first one is to kind of understand how things run. It’s important to get the lay of the land first. The second one is to provide input when I have something valuable to add. One of the things Juliet said when she asked me to consider being on the board was, ‘I need people who are not going to be afraid to voice their opinions.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ I can be a team player, but I have no problem (doing that) when I think it’s necessary. 

I’m a pilot at United Airlines, and we’ve gone through a merger, which I think is going to be valuable experience with all the changes that are coming down with the USGA (in terms of streamlining relationships with state and regional golf associations, part of the USGA’s new membership engagement model). As a woman pilot at United Airlines, there’s not many of us, so I work a lot with a lot of men, and I think I work well with men, and I think that’s valuable too. Sometimes in striving for independence as women we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that we still have to be able to get along. You still have to be able to work with people. 

So I think all of that will help make the CWGA the best it can be. I think I can provide some good insight with some of these (USGA-related) changes that are going to happen in the next couple of years. Whatever that change is, I’m ready to help with that change. As a board we’re providing our own individual input on what kind of structure do we see in the future that could align with what the USGA wants, but doesn’t lose our own identity in the process.

— What else are you working on with the CWGA?

MW: I just got selected to be on the (course) rating committee, so that’s where I’ll be doing my work for the CWGA this year, as well as being on the at-large committee. I’m really looking forward to it because it sounds very intriguing. They ask for a commitment for each rater to do eight courses per year, and we take a group of eight. We have a full slate, so it will be a busy year. 

I know some people do it because they get to play a course they maybe wouldn’t play (otherwise). For me, it’s not that. I play at Wellshire and over the years Wellshire has changed dramatically because we’ve taken out a lot of trees. Wellshire used to be a fairly difficult course because it was a ball-placement course, just like most country clubs are. Because they’ve removed trees and sand traps, it really has become a different course. I’ve always thought, ‘This has got to affect this rating.’  So now I’m really excited to see how that actually works. I like my handicap to be right. 

There are some courses that are rated easier and you go play them and you’re like, ‘Who rated this course?’ It’s going to be fun to become involved with that process to make sure the rating of all the courses in Colorado reflect their current status. A lot of couses make changes and they don’t get re-rated for several years. That’s why there are all those discrepancies. So it’s kind of nice to find out the science of it all.

— How many rounds of golf do you play in an average year?

MW: I’m one of those lucky folks that for the City of Denver I own a five-day annual, which they don’t sell anymore. You were grandfathered in if you owned one. You pay an up-front fee, then you play golf for $6 per round. So it encourages you to go play golf. I would say I probably play 40 rounds a year, if not more. That’s because I think you have to play at least 33 rounds at Denver courses to break even on the money you pay up front. So it really encourages me to get out. I would love to play two to three times a week. I don’t always get that in, but I try to.

I’m lucky because half of the year I work at our (flight) training center at Stapleton as an instructor and an evaluator. Those schedules are a lot more flexible. When you fly it’s a lot harder. But pilots are guaranteed 13 days off per month, so usually you can work in a couple of rounds there.

— When did you first get started in golf personally?

I was in the Air Force, so it was kind of like required mandatory fun. But I wasn’t any good at it. I realized in the Air Force golf was you have to own the clubs and then drink a lot of beer, then you’re accepted. I didn’t really start playing until I was 31, 32 when I moved to Denver (in the mid-1990s). I kind of went out to Overland Park to play by myself, and the starter put me with the women’s group there. I met some really nice ladies over there who got me really involved and interested in playing league golf, and I started from there and never looked back.

I really love the game and I try to teach everybody I know how to play or get them interested. I think it’s one of those great sports like skiing or snowboarding that you can do well into your years. I played basketball in college and I coach basketball right now at the high school level, and it frustrates me I can’t play basketball anymore like I used to. I want to, but I can’t. But golf I can do for a long time. That was kind of my thought process as I was getting older. 

The very first handicap I ever got was a 30. I remember thinking, ‘That seems so high.’ Everybody said, ‘No, that’s really good.’ Over the years I dropped every year. I went from being the B team captain for many years at Overland, then I switched over to Wellshire, then I ended up being the A team captain at Wellshire. That’s what I currently am now. I’ve been the club champion a couple of times. My goal is to be a (consistent) single-digit handicap sometime (soon). 

— Tell me about your professional background.

MW: I went through Air Force ROTC on a scholarship at the University of Southern California, and I also played on the national championship basketball team there. That was a very diverse background there in college — definitely two distinct group of friends.

I was active duty in the Air Force right after college for six years. After the Air Force I went directly to United Airlines. I’ve been at United for 24 years now. I’ve been fortunate in my career there not to get furloughed because there’s been some really down times since 9/11 in the airline industry and I’ve always been very fortunate not to lose my job. I also had the distinction when I upgraded to captain of being the first black woman captain ever at a passenger airline in the U.S. That was a real honor for me. 

I moved to Denver in ’95 (from Spokane, Wash.), when DIA opened. When DIA opened I was finally able to get to Denver; Denver is such a senior base. People just really enjoy Denver and they don’t want to leave. It’s a great place to live, so it’s worth being junior to be able to play great golf and do great skiing and snowboarding up in the mountains.

— What is your flight schedule like for United?

If you ask me where I would like to fly, I would love to fly to the West Coast because the weather is typically better there. But if you ask me where I actually fly, I tell people I’m on the Verizon plan, which means I fly nights and weekends. And when I say nights, I mean all night, leaving at midnight-type flying. That’s the junior pilot thing. If you’re junior, you get whatever is left over, and that’s usually what’s left over — the weekend flying, the nighttime flying. 

— From what you said about USC, do I assume correctly that you must have been there the same time as Cherry Miller?

MW: She was my roommate. We were there the same four years. Back in the day everyone knew Cheryl Miller and they’d say, ‘Wow you’re roommates with Cheryl Miller.’ But the funnier thing was Cynthia Cooper was on that team. She didn’t even start on that team. She been a WNBA MVP (twice), she won a bunch of WNBA championships (four) and USA gold medals in the Olympics (two). She’s in the Hall of Fame. She’s actually a more accomplished player — and she’s the head coach at USC right now. And it’s just kind of funny because the people of my generation talk about Cheryl Miller. I think, ‘Do you people know Cynthia Cooper because she’s pretty incredible?’ She didn’t even start on our team; that’s how good our team was.

I tell people that having that on my resume over my career has done more for me than anything else. That seems kind of shocking because obviously the things I apply for have nothing to do with basketball. But it really did. It seems to always create interest. I’m very blessed to have been on that team. It’s one of those things that changed my life.

— And you’re now coaching at the high school level?

MW: I’m the (girls) varsity assistant at Dakota Ridge High School. I’ve been doing that for three years. I had never coached before. I got into coaching at the club level because one of my kids plays basketball. When people hear where you played and what you did, it’s like, ‘Hey, are you interested in coaching?’ 

I never thought I’d be a good coach, but as it turns out I am actually a really good coach. And part of that is I am by trade in the airline an instructor. I’ve been an instructor a lot, and an evaluator. You learn how to observe and correct. You add to that all the great players I played with and the things that they did and know and you end up being a really good basketball coach because you know you can take that experience and say, ‘I’ve been there. Don’t tell me how tired you are. I know. I didn’t win that by not running lines.’ The girls respect you for that.

The other thing is, when you play for the national championship team, you don’t play a lot. I tell them, ‘Don’t complain to me about not playing enough. I know what it’s like to be a practice player. And you know what: I was a darn good practice player, probably the best ever at USC. I brag about that. If you’re not playing a lot, you’ve got to make the most of the time you get on the court.’ So I feel like I kind of connect with the girls at every level, whether they’re the star of the team or the kid that doesn’t play as much because I had both. I had my chance to be a star in high school, but in college I certainly was not a star. That kind of valuable experience really translates with the girls. 

— Do I assume you don’t have the time to be the head coach?

MW: Right. I was asked to be the head coach (when earlier coaches exited). But I don’t have time to be a head coach.

But I’m really proud of being a good assistant. It’s kind of like being a good bench player in college. Everybody has a role, and if you play your role well, the whole team (benefits).

— Is there something else people may not know about you that might be of interest?

MW: My friends call me by the nickname, ‘The Seeker.’ They call me that because I can find you anything you need whether it’s on Craigslist, eBay, around town. When people need something, they call me. They go, ‘M’lis I need a fire pit for my patio.’ I’m like, ‘I got it. I’ll get it for you.’ I’m that person. I just love doing it. I call it treasure hunting. My mom and I do it together.