Noor Ahmed has seldom gone unnoticed in her life, first impressions generally her bane. Her name alone was enough to attract attention. So was the hijab she began to wear as a seventh grader. In high school, she drove a ’98 Ford F150 pickup with a stick shift and more miles on it than a trusty old putter, while still wearing the hijab and often as not headed to the golf course.
Then it was off to college, to the heartland, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Here I definitely stick out like a sore thumb.”
First impressions are what they are, visceral reactions often untethered to reality. Ahmed, an American Muslim, has experienced the gamut of them, from indifference and curiosity to hostility and racism.
Whatever connotations one assigns to a hijab, a traditional head covering for Muslim women, they would do well to avail themselves of a second impression of Ahmed.
“I honestly can’t say enough positive and wonderful things about Noor,” Kelli Corlett said. Corlett was one of Ahmed’s life skills coaches at The First Tee of Greater Sacramento and was her chaperone when Ahmed was invited to speak at the First Tee Congressional Breakfast in Washington, D.C., two years ago.
“She’s poised. She’s certainly an incredible golfer. She’s extremely intelligent. She understands what it means to be a good person. She puts others first. She’s an absolute joy to be around.”
This is not an outlier opinion of Ahmed, a sophomore on the women’s golf team at Nebraska and believed to be the first Muslim to play college golf observing the hijab.
“She is an impressive young woman,” Nebraska coach Robin Krapfl said via email. “I know she feels a responsibility to be a good role model for younger Muslim girls, but there is no doubt she is. I’m proud of her for embracing that responsibility and for the maturity she displays facing challenges she has to deal with on a daily basis.”
Ahmed is the daughter of Egyptian parents, who emigrated to the United States. Her father, Tamer, arrived with her grandfather, who was fleeing political persecution. Noor was born in Austin, Texas, but the family settled in the Sacramento area, where Tamer is a civil engineer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Noor’s mother, Hoda, is an elementary school teacher.
Noor’s parents encouraged her and her younger brother Yusuf to pursue sports—“athletics in general is a big part of Egyptian culture,” she said—and their home on the seventh hole of Empire Ranch Golf Club in the Sacramento suburb of Folsom, was enticingly convenient.
She took the game up, though she was not living under par so much as under the illusion that golf was supposed to be fun. Or easy.
“I was 8. I hated it,” she said. “It was so hard. It was aggravating for me. Golf is the most humbling sport. It took me awhile to learn that golf is a sport in which you get out of it what you put into it.”
She wanted to quit, but Dad said no. “If you want to be good at something you have to keep trying,” he told her. She began setting small goals, easier to achieve, and “fell in love with the process of investing and getting a return.”
It helped, too, that her father provided incentives, like letting her get a cell phone were she finally to beat him. “Being a fourth grader, that was the best thing ever. I worked really hard for five or six months, and I beat him.” Next, he promised her a smart phone once she broke par. She earned that, too.
Ahmed’s interest in the game expanded to include the LPGA, where she joined the legions who were fans of Lorena Ochoa. She attended the CVS Pharmacy LPGA Challenge one year and when play backed up on a tee box, Ochoa came over, said hello to her and offered her a sandwich. She declined. “I was too shy,” she said.
That was an understatement. The bullying started in kindergarten and carried on through elementary school and into middle school. “Growing up, I’ve been told pretty straight up that people who look like me don’t belong in this country,” she said. “I’ve heard every racial slur in the book.”
Classmates who befriended her only for the help she could provide them with their school work abandoned her when they no longer needed her. Depression and anxiety followed and she “felt worthless,” she said.
Then came the hijab. “I think it is an obligation for women to dress modestly. That is how some women choose to do that. I started wearing it the middle of the seventh grade. It felt like the right time. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I didn’t talk to any of my family about it. I didn’t want any influence. I wanted to do it at the right time, and it felt right.”
The reaction likely was predictable. She lost friends over it, though over time some realized that she was the same person dressed differently. Meanwhile, she began to question “whether being an American and Muslim were antithetical,” she said in a speech she gave at the First Tee Congressional Breakfast.
The First Tee of Greater Sacramento became her lifeline. The golfers on its junior tour went through life-skill sessions before each tournament, though Ahmed did not attend any of them for the the first year and a half, too shy to make the first move.
Angie Dixon, its executive director, noticing she was not participating in the lessons and made the first move. “Angie took me by the hand and told me we would do the sessions together,” Ahmed said in her speech in Washington, where she addressed 30 members of Congress and others in attendance, including PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “She may never know or understand how she, in that very moment, changed my life.
“I learned while standing on the first tee box how to shake hands with my playing partners, look them in the eye, say my name loudly and clearly, and to tell them it was nice to meet them. I know that it sounds so silly, but that was a huge accomplishment for me. Coach Angie noticed me, the shy, introverted girl in the corner that no one saw before, and through her small action she told me that I was a part of a group and that I was wanted.”
Ahmed soon began to make friends in The First Tee chapter, none of whom even noticed the hijab she said, “or if they did, they didn’t seem to care.”
Krapfl cared, though not about the hijab. Ahmed was playing in an American Junior Golf Association tournament in Las Vegas and made an impression on Krapfl, who was there to recruit and saw a talented young high school player. Ahmed sent the coach, who has overseen the Nebraksa program for more than three decades, an email, and she was invited to Lincoln to visit the campus.
She accepted athletic and academic scholarships and enrolled at Nebraska in the fall of 2017. She made an immediate impact in golf—she had Nebraska’s fourth lowest stroke average, 76.45—while attempting to acclimate herself to college life on a campus where “I’m very recognizable,” she said.
The hijab became a talking point at golf tournaments. “For most people, I know they’ve never seen a Muslim woman in hijab before. There was the stereotype of not being from America. ‘What country are you from? Your English is really good.’ They assumed I was an international student. I feel like every time I step onto a golf course I have to prove that a Muslim woman can compete and compete in a hijab and compete well.
“On the golf course, the hijab makes me stand out. It’s definitely a reminder every time I step on the golf course that I am different. No one will look like me. No one will dress like me. Also every time you’re stepping onto the course is helping break down stereotypes.”
None of it has been easy, though she said “it freaks my parents out more than me. They’re parents. They have a right to be worried for the safety of their children.” In her freshman year, she had a biology lab with a student who made headlines in Lincoln for reportedly calling himself “the most active white nationalist in the Nebraska area.”
“It’s definitely had its lows, but the highs have been great as well,” she said of college life. “I had my first top-10 finish in Puerto Rico [ninth at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic in February]. The team just won its first event in five years [the Westbrook Invitational].”
The highest of highs, perhaps, was her evolving relationship with her teammates. “For the majority of them, not all of them, I’m the first Muslim person they’ve ever had a relationship with. Seeing them opening their minds a little bit has been really rewarding. Even just meeting kids on other teams and other student athletes from all over the country and world and getting to know them and their stories has been really amazing.”
Ahmed does not intend to pursue professional golf. She recognizes a higher calling, that of continuing to help break down stereotypes and to diversify the sports industry. “I’d like to work in intercollegiate athletics. Sports have been such a huge part of my life and shaping me into the person I am. I’d love to give back to sports by working with student athletes who are going to go through what I’m going through.”
Corlett describes Ahmed as “a combination of an old soul with a little bit of a modern twist.” When Noor was home for the winter break, she and Corlett met for lunch one day. Corlett asked her how she coped with the attention she got from wearing the hijab.
“I just explain where I come from and my beliefs,” Ahmed replied. “That’s really all I can do and I do it in positive way.”
The shy girl with no self esteem? She has been replaced by a strong young woman with “a true sense of self,” Corlett said.
“She will help change the world and make it a better place.”