The Return of Shoal Creek

If you still associate Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club with the controversial remarks its founder made about the club’s dearth of black members, then you might be surprised to hear that the ever-uncontroversial USGA is taking the U.S. Junior Amateur there next week.

Shoal Creek became a symbol of country clubs’ exclusionist practices when, in the lead-up to the 1990 PGA Championship, the club’s founder, Hall W. Thompson, told the Birmingham Post-Herald that his club would “not be pressured into accepting” black members. “This is our home,” he said, “and we pick and choose who we want.”

Thompson’s comments drew the ire of civil rights activists and caused several of the PGA’s corporate sponsors to withdraw $2 million in TV advertising. The club responded nine days before the PGA by extending an honorary membership to Louis J. Willie, a local insurance executive who was black, though not an avid golfer.

Since then, Shoal Creek, also the site of the 1984 PGA and the 1986 U.S. Amateur, has dropped out of the big-time tournament rota, having not hosted a single event for the USGA or any other major golf association. But if you were thinking the club had been forever stripped of its national championship hosting rights, that’s not quite the case.

“I don’t think that any club should be given the death penalty,” David Fay, the USGA’s executive director, told me when explaining the USGA’s decision to take the U.S. Junior to Shoal Creek. Fay doesn’t even consider the move particularly controversial given that Shoal Creek’s revised, more-inclusive membership policy now meets the standards the USGA requires of its championship sites.

Fay said Shoal Creek actually might have landed another USGA event sooner had it just raised its hand. “We weren’t receiving invitations,” Fay says. “And we won’t go knocking on a club’s door.” (Shoal Creek actually was close to hosting the Senior Amateur six or seven years ago but was unable provide the fleet of golf carts the tournament required.)

Still, the question remains: How much has the negative publicity generated by Thompson’s comments hurt Shoal Creek in its mission to attract top-tier tournaments, even if the club has made efforts to become more diverse?

“It certainly hasn’t helped,” says Michael Thompson, Hall Thompson’s son, who as general chairman of this year’s U.S. Junior played a big role in bringing the event to Shoal Creek. “We could have had an event three years after the ’90 PGA, but it just didn’t work. Nobody wanted to come back that quick.”

“But we’re not embittered,” Thompson says. “If you’re embittered, it means you’ve lost. We basically are trying to put our best foot forward.”

That hasn’t always been easy given his father’s divisive remarks.

“People don’t remember anything but that about 1990,” Thompson says. “Immediately my dad said he didn’t say what the article said he’d said, and I know some of that’s true or all of it’s true because some of [the quotes] actually came out of another article from the year before by a different writer.

“Be that as it may, whatever was said or wasn’t said, was said or wasn’t said. So he apologized. He said he was truly sorry if something was taken out of context or if somebody’s feelings were hurt. But guess what? Nothing changed. The story remained Shoal Creek and minority membership.”

The club acted quickly to remedy its PR crisis, and continues to do so. Since 1990, four black members have joined the club, Thompson said. As part of a “quiet outreach” program, Shoal Creek recently asked 10 more African Americans to apply for membership. Eight declined and two said they plan to accept the offer in the future, Thompson says. In another gesture of good faith, the club also hosted a fundraiser for The First Tee, a USGA initiative that gives underprivileged kids access to golf.

Despite Shoal Creek’s efforts, boosting the number of black members has not been easy because there’s “not a crush of interest” in the community, Thompson says.

Though the membership controversy may have damaged Shoal Creek’s reputation, the club didn’t crawl into a hole. It has hosted plenty of regional and college tournaments and was even in serious discussions to join the Tour Championship rota in the late-90s. Thompson says his club has also had passing discussions with the LPGA, Champions Tour and PGA of America, though nothing materialized.

That is until September 2005 when Shoal Creek inked a deal to host the ’08 U.S. Junior.

“It’ll play 106 yards longer than the 1990 PGA,” Thompson says of the course, a highly regarded Jack Nicklaus design. “The field is going to play a big, tough, U.S. Open-type golf course, and we just can’t wait to show it off. We’re treating this as a major.”

And who knows — it may just lead to another major some day, a real major. Says Thompson, “We’d love to begin those discussions immediately.”