Travelers Championship

TPC River Highlands


Policy Shift

By Jaime Diaz Photos by AP
September 15, 2009

Ranked 50th in Golf Digest's 100 Greatest Courses, Shoal Creek has been better known for a controversy surrounding the 1990 Championship.

It was gratifying to learn that Condoleezza Rice has become a member at Shoal Creek.

I was happy for golf, which always benefits when the perception that it is exclusionary to minorities and women is countered with an enlightened act. I was also happy for Shoal Creek, which has been stigmatized as a symbol of discrimination ever since its late founder, Hall Thompson, in the prelude to the 1990 PGA Championship told a local newspaper reporter, "We don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks ... that's just not done in Birmingham, Alabama."

By becoming a member, former Secretary Rice has for the second time this year shown herself to be an unofficial but effective golf diplomat. Her high profile visit to this year's Masters will be remembered as an important symbolic step when Augusta National admits its first female member (it would be fitting if it turned out to be her). And in her account of her experience on the blog, The Daily Beast, Rice made a point of saying one of her favorite golfers is Fuzzy Zoeller, who suffered greatly in the aftermath of his ill-chosen and racially tinged comments about Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters. In the city of her childhood, where so many important moments in the civil rights movement took place, Rice returns as a prominent black woman and avid golfer who is helping Shoal Creek move forward.

The club deserves as much. In the years since hastily giving non-golfer Louis T. Willie an honorary membership amid the PGA firestorm, it has added five other black members. It's also continued to seek more minority members, and last year hosted the U.S. Boys Junior Amateur.

In retrospect, more than inflicting a fresh wound, Shoal Creek revealed a festering one. Thompson's comments initiated the frankest acknowledgement ever of golf's widespread discrimination based on race and gender at its private clubs. The specter of the ugly truth untapped -- and the real potential for lost corporate sponsorship -- frankly scared golf leaders straight, as the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, the USGA and the Augusta National all immediately instituted reforms requiring host clubs to be inclusive. Since then, the game's previously ignored black history has been better appreciated, initiatives like the First Tee have grown exponentially, and obvious incidents of racism and sexism are quickly denounced.

Still, minority participation in golf remains down, and the issues of Shoal Creek continue to echo. They could be heard in President Carter's recent assertion that much of the vehement opposition to President Obama's health care plan is founded in racism, which has triggered the latest fierce national debate on the subject. While in Birmingham covering Shoal Creek for the New York Times, I found that the most profound comments were supplied by veteran leaders in the black community, who though far removed from golf, knew the events spoke to something larger.

The most prominent was Rev. Joseph Lowery, then the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a man who in 1997 was named by the NAACP "the dean of the civil rights movement." The now 87-year-old Lowery was both funny and profound while delivering the benediction at President Obama's inauguration, and those same qualities were evident when I approached him 19 years ago.

"This thing chose us," he said then, chuckling at the idea of getting more attention for his thoughts on country club membership practices than he had marching with Martin Luther King or leading anti-segregation lunch counter sit-ins in the early 60s. "But I'm glad this all happened. It opens up another frontier that we haven't been able to tap before. Golf is deceptive, because it seems only like plush clubhouses and green fairways. It looks very decent. This honest man, Mr. Thompson, has exposed the sophisticated layer of deceit and hypocrisy that veils the racism that still exists in our society today."

It took a good reporter, Joan Mazzolini of the Birmingham Post-Herald, to ask Thompson the right questions. With little knowledge of golf but possessing a keen eye for cultural dissonance, Mazzolini used the occasion of a major championship coming to Birmingham to embark on a story of the exclusionary practices at the city's private clubs. In her 90-minute interview with Thompson, she combined an engaging conversational style with a direct line of questioning to get forthright and ultra-revealing answers.

Mazzolini now works at the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a business reporter. "Who would have thought Condoleezza Rice and Shoal Creek?" she said upon learning the latest. "But you know, maybe I shouldn't be surprised, because I found the people in Birmingham were really affected by what happened, and really thoughtful about what it meant. And a lot of things are different. I mean, golf has Tiger Woods. And the country elected Barack Obama. I'm sure Shoal Creek changed some minds for the better."

And now Rice's membership will surely change some more.