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Local Knowledge

When the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek forced golf into a racial reckoning

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Hall Thompson, the tractor mogul who built Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club with the help of Jack Nicklaus, could have answered the report from the Birmingham Post-Herald any number of ways. His course was about six weeks from hosting the PGA Championship for the second time, and Joan Mazzolini's question was one he probably should have anticipated: the Birmingham city council had bought an advertisement for $1,500 in the championship program, but now they wanted to take it back because Shoal Creek wouldn't admit a black member. What did Thompson think about that, and about the possibility of admitting black members? Instead of downplaying the issue, or answering carefully, Thompson was honest, and his response would be like an electric shock to the world of private clubs.

"That's just not done in Birmingham, Alabama," he said. "We have the right to associate or not to associate with whomever we chose. The country club is our home, and we pick and choose who we want."

And finally, the coup de grace: "I think we've said we don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks."

The outcry, as you might imagine, was immediate, with the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference taking the initiative. They threatened to boycott the tournament—an unwelcome turn for the PGA of America—and for a city with its own incendiary racial past, this was a harsh reminder of the bad old days of the '60s, when city police commissioner Bull Connor had become notorious in America for his treatment of civil rights activists, when Martin Luther King Jr. had been thrown in jail, and when a a bomb on a baptist church planted by members of the KKK killed four black girls.

A confrontation was inevitable, and because it was so late in history—by 1990, most other sports had resolved their segregation issues long before—public opinion was squarely against Thompson. As it turned out, though, this wasn't just an Alabama problem, and it wasn't just a southern problem; clubs all across America were whites-only, whether it was explicitly written in the by-laws or not, and like Shoal Creek, many of those clubs were prominent players in the world of professional golf, and hosts to major events.

Pat Rielly, the president of the PGA of America, and Jim Awtrey, the executive director, led the fight to force Shoal Creek to admit a black member in the short time between Thompson's comments and the start of the tournament, but the effects of Shoal Creek reached far beyond a single weekend in August. From the PGA of America to the USGA to the PGA Tour, golf's governing bodies realized the time had come to take a serious look at membership practices in their host clubs, and an issue that had remained in the shadows for decades was about to come under a very harsh spotlight.

In this week's Local Knowledge, we chronicle the events of that historic summer, tracing the timeline of the conflict and highlighting the major players in what became a tense standoff, and we look at the far-reaching effects of a racial reckoning that had been brewing in golf's secret corners for a very long time.