Shoal Creek, once a poster-child for discrimination, quietly moved into the 21st century

Shoal Creek, once a poster-child for discrimination, quietly moved into the 21st century

This article originally appeared in the August, 2010 issue of GOLF Magazine.


My tour guide was nice enough to pick me up at the Tutwiler, an old-timey hotel in downtown Birmingham, Ala. There are black-and-white photos of Birmingham throughout the hotel, and in my room there was a 19th-century snap showing sturdy black women in long cotton dresses carting fruits and vegetables. You can imagine what their lives were like.

There’s no record of who the first black guest was at the Tutwiler, a footnote in the social history of the city, but there was one. Now the Tutwiler is a part of the Hampton Inn chain, and a black guest inquiring about the $119 walk-in rate wouldn’t get a second look, or so you’d hope. Things change.

I went to Birmingham for an anniversary, of a sort. It was 20 years ago that Hall Thompson — the founder of Shoal Creek, site of the 1990 PGA Championship — explained the club’s admissions policy to a Birmingham Post-Herald reporter with these words: “I think we’ve said that we don’t discriminate in every other area except the blacks.”

“Hall Thompson was saying something that was absolutely honest and absolutely racist,” James Lewis, the publisher of the Birmingham Times, the city’s black newspaper, told me. “But that was then.”

Hall, a self-made man and an Augusta National member, was born in 1923 in the Jim Crow South. In 1990, he was still living in it. His children are a different story. My tour guide in Birmingham was Hall’s son, Mike Thompson, who is proud to say that Condoleezza Rice is a member of the club today. Things change.

“After that quote went out, my father got over 3,000 media requests,” Mike Thompson told me. “I got 300 myself. We turned them all down. It was a tough time, tough for the club, tough for us personally. My father offered to resign from all the boards he was on. He did resign from the PGA of America. But he stayed on at Vanderbilt and on his corporate boards.” Here’s Mike’s point: If Vanderbilt University felt Hall Thompson was a racist, would they let him stay on the board? “His friends at Augusta National, and everywhere else, always supported him. They know what kind of man he is.”

Time, it’s been said since the beginning of it, heals all. In 1994, Tiger Woods came to Shoal Creek for a college tournament, the Jerry Pate Invitational, and won it. Mike Thompson has met or called a score or more of golf-loving blacks in Birmingham and encouraged them to visit Shoal Creek and consider membership. The club had a visit from the USGA in June to discuss the possibility of being a site for a future U.S. Women’s Open. “The club is flourishing,” Thompson told me. Lewis, the black publisher, gave me this modern history lesson: “Shoal Creek is just like Birmingham. Once there was total segregation. Then there was the appearance of inclusion. Now there’s real inclusion.”

Case in point: Hall Thompson and Condi Rice schmoozing in the Shoal Creek grill room together.

“Did you hear President Obama last night?” Thompson, now 87 and still active in the running of the club, asked the former secretary of state during a recent visit to the club.

“I know,” said Rice, who was born in Birmingham. “It was intolerable.”

Two red-meat Republicans, chatting it up at their club.

No doubt that part of the reason Thompson’s 15-word quote from 20 years ago caught the attention of the country was because it was datelined Birmingham. The city where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963. (“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”) The state where George Wallace, in his gubernatorial inauguration speech that same year, screamed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow — segregation forever!” Twenty-seven years later, Hall Thompson showed the world that the high-techy New South still carried hand-me-down remnants of the Old South. The New York Times couldn’t get enough of it.

Within months the USGA, the PGA Tour, the LPGA and the PGA of America required private clubs that wanted to host public golf events to prove that they had nondiscriminatory admissions practices for women and blacks in particular.

You could say it was a triumph of political correctness. Of course private clubs discriminate, at least in the broad sense of the word. They did then and they do now. They say yes to this person and no to many more. The new rules were really asking the private clubs to play a game: continue to admit whomever you like, as long as some of your members are blacks and women. Oh, and make your private-club admissions policies at least semi-public.

Augusta National, which has no female members, wasn’t willing to play the game, but the Masters received an exemption of sorts from the PGA Tour requirements as a special private-club invitational event that isn’t really an official part of the Tour schedule. Except that the money a player earns is official money. And the win is an official win. Want to know how Augusta gets away with it? Because the Tour needs the Masters way more than the Masters needs the Tour.

But the Thompsons at Shoal Creek were not in a position to do that. They took another approach. They opened their doors and opened their process. Shoal Creek has had as many as five black members and now has three. They meet all the requirements for inclusion. They are motivated by one thing in particular: the desire to have a national event at the club.

The PGA of America has not shown any signs of wanting to come back. “That stung them, that whole 1990 deal,” Thompson said. The PGA Tour and the LPGA have shown, he says, “passing interest.” A future with the USGA is the club’s best bet, particularly after a successful U.S. Junior Amateur there in 2008. “The golf course quality is very good and we’re comfortable that the championship operations would be excellent,” says David Fay, the USGA’s executive director. “The prospects for good-sized galleries and the anticipated overall community support will be key components in making our decision.” The club’s past, Fay adds, will not.

In the Tutwiler parking lot, I asked my guide what he thought of starting with a tour of Birmingham’s civil rights sites. Mike Thompson — so earnest he asked me if he should be using “black” or “African-American” — cottoned right to the idea. He pointed his massive Chevy Suburban to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls were killed by a bomb in 1963 set by Klansmen. He climbed the steps and read a plaque and knocked on its door (the church was closed) and retold the horror.

We walked into the park across the street, dotted with testaments to the Civil Rights Movement. “Who do you think that is?” I asked as we approached a statue from behind.

“I don’t know, don’t have any idea,” Thompson said. He looked up at the statue’s bronze, iconic face and said, “It’s Martin Luther King!” The statue’s pedestal was etched with the names of the people who got it built. He pointed to Judy Thompson and said, “My sister.”

On our way to Shoal Creek, we did a drive-by on Thompson’s graceful home in suburban Mountain Brook and then to two other clubs where he’s been a member all his life, the sprawling Birmingham Country Club, where Hubert Green grew up playing, and the cozy Mountain Brook Club. He grew up with 54 Donald Ross holes a bike ride away. David Fay of the USGA talks about “sipping-whiskey courses.” These places were it. I was drooling.

As we started to head to Shoal Creek, I asked, “Birmingham Country Club and Mountain Brook, do they have black members?”

“I can’t answer for the clubs, but to the best of my knowledge they don’t,” Thompson said.

I asked, “Could a black candidate get in today?”

Thompson was silent for maybe a half-minute. That’s a long time for him. He’s a salesman and a talker. He’s the chairman of Thompson Tractor, founded by his father, a major distributor of Caterpillar products. The only time I heard a longer pause was when I asked him if Shoal Creek would be open to an openly gay candidate. (Not a problem, he said eventually.) As for whether Birmingham CC or Mountain Brook would have a black member today, Thompson finally said, “I think so.”

Shoal Creek is not a sipping-whiskey course. It’s a Jack Nicklaus course carved out of a forest with large bent greens and shallow bunkers. The day I visited a charity tournament was being played, with one fivesome after another, and you could greet one man in four with, “Hey, Coach.”

A fivesome came to the elevated 14th tee, a par-4 dogleg right. T.R. Dunn, the former NBA player, was in the group. He’s a University of Alabama basketball legend and a man Mike Thompson has been trying to recruit for membership at Shoal Creek. The other four players were white men. One of the caddies was a skinny black teenager named Patrick Harris. A golfer in the group, Matthew Dent, said to him, “All right — let’s see it.”

The kid swatted one, 275 yards, little baby fade. In their scramble it would have been the keeper. In the fall he’s going to Chicago State University on a golf scholarship. It wasn’t any sort of setup, by the way. It just happened. Later that day, when his workday was done, his pocket newly lined with six crisp $20 bills, Patrick Harris played Shoal Creek with three of his caddie buddies and posted a smooth 76.

Mike Thompson gave me, as you would expect, a thorough tour of his club — the course, the pro shop, the clubhouse library, his father’s office, the whole nine yards. People who know Hall well tell you he’s a blunt, hardworking, opinionated man, a bomb loader during World War II who lived in an all-white world socially and an integrated one all his working life.

At one point my guide motioned for me to get into the passenger seat of his golf cart. In a warbly voice he sang, “Ride, captain, ride upon your mystery ship.” The midday Alabama sun was high in the sky. Mike Thompson swigged a Diet Coke and stepped on the gas.