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Private golf clubs' moment of reckoning

From the archive: Will private club open the doors?



Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.

Marcia Chambers was never much of a golfer, but she became the voice of reason on all of golf’s serious issues pertaining to the law and discrimination during an important period of change—the late 1980s and 1990s. I met Marcia in 1982 when she was dating Stan Wheeler, a sociology professor at Yale Law School. Stan was an old friend who shared my love of golf, jazz and New Haven pizza. Marcia was working as an investigative reporter concentrating on legal affairs for The New York Times, which owned Golf Digest back then. I invited Frank Hannigan, then the executive director of the USGA, to join us for a round of golf, and at the end of the round, Frank said, “You should get Marcia to write for Golf Digest.” It was good advice.

Chambers covered the “Square Grooves” and Casey Martin lawsuits for the magazine. She also wrote a two-part series on discrimination at private clubs that appeared in April and May 1990, landing at the same time as (and some say inspiring) the Shoal Creek controversy that revealed widespread racism in club membership practices and shook up the venues of PGA Tour events. The series won a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association in 1991. The story that follows here originally appeared in the October 1990 issue assessing the aftermath of Shoal Creek and the beginning of clubs opening to minorities. Later, Marcia wrote a story for Golf For Women magazine (a Golf Digest publication), that outlined gender discrimination at Augusta National and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, arguably leading to their membership changes. Today, almost 30 years later, America’s most elite golf clubs all have diversified their memberships, as have second-tier clubs; it’s in mid-level private clubs that we still see some residual resistance to diversity.

Marcia went on to write dozens of stories on club discrimination of all types—including sexual orientation—for Golf Digest and The New York Times. She also wrote a pivotal three-part story (27,000 words) on the business of the PGA Tour that drew even more controversy. Her 1995 book, The Unplayable Lie: The Untold Story of Women and Discrimination in American Golf, remains the seminal work on the subject.

Stan and Marcia were married in 1984 and remained powerful forces until their deaths, respectively, in 2007 and 2019. They were both valued contributors to Golf Digest. Yale University celebrates their lives annually with the Stan Wheeler and Marcia Chambers Memorial Jazz Concert. —Jerry Tarde


While golf slept, change came to the cloistered world of the private country club. It came in a flash, and it probably came to stay.

No longer will this bastion of white wealth and privilege be able to enjoy the quiet safety of the old ways. Modern times came calling.

When the revolution finally arrived, it came not from within but from corporate America, which in effect turned on itself and wrought a change that would have taken the courts years to accomplish.

The corporate dollar that created the modern golf empire threatened to take it away. And when Hall Thompson, founder of Shoal Creek, the Birmingham, Ala., host club of the 1990 PGA Championship, said his club would not be pressured into accepting “the blacks,” he learned a lifetime lesson in what true pressure is all about. There came the threat of picketing at Shoal Creek by major black organizations. The big sponsors, led by IBM, quickly pulled their TV ads from ESPN and ABC.

The impact has been far-reaching not only for golf’s governing bodies and for country clubs that would like to host tournaments, but for all clubs. It was seen that Thompson’s club quickly had to usher in a black member to save its event. Shoal Creek put golf on the national TV and radio news. Golf, “the last clean sport,” was being talked about in less than glowing terms.

The possibility of change, so often a frightening thing, swept through every men’s grill in America. The clubhouses were alive with soul-searching and acrimonious talk. In certain clubs, human rights were being discussed perhaps for the first time in their history.

Most private clubs in America never serve as venues for tour events and, in theory, should be unaffected by the Shoal Creek controversy. But the long glare of publicity has made private clubs and their corporate members uncomfortable. Many clubs that had enjoyed more secrecy than the CIA were being named in the national media, their membership policies scrutinized, their initiation fees and their racial and gender practices laid bare.

And the clubs haven’t necessarily liked it. At Youghiogheny Country Club in Pennsylvania, a woman responded to Golf Digest inquiries in 1990 with a typically firm response: “I have been instructed to say absolutely nothing on the subject.” Reporters were ushered off the premises at other clubs, and at least one club put off-duty policemen at the gates.

So PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman has told his club venues to integrate or be gone from the tour schedule. But what of the 5,000 other private clubs in America? Not every one of them discriminates against minorities. But in many cases the operative word is private. These are clubs populated by men who are accustomed to power and who don’t like being told what to do. Many clubs already have lengthy waiting lists, and to attempt railroading into membership a politically hazardous person ahead of the old friends and business associates on that list is to invite trouble. Now they are being told that to do nothing also invites trouble.

Discrimination is rarely mandated in official club policy. This was Hall Thompson’s blunder, to say out loud those sentiments that have for years remained unspoken. Discreet club officers usually don’t leave a paper trail for government investigators. Very often, club policy can come from a silent pressure—sponsor a black applicant and you might find yourself blackballed, or receive an indirect warning. Club review for membership is usually a long and arduous process, and some club members resent the idea that they would have to accept a member under duress.

Clubs across the country that are members of the National Club Association have sought advice about membership policies, tee times and men’s grills. Many want to know what to say to the local newspaper.

And then there is the inevitable question—“Whom will he play with?”—as if only blacks will want to play with other blacks. This could be dismissed as a mere racist attitude unconfirmed by reality were it not an experience shared by some black members of private clubs. “It is a lonely experience,” said one black club member, “waiting to see if someone will ask you to join them.”

Will there be a concerted rush to find black members? The demographics don’t make it easy, especially in certain rural or suburban communities. Even if 11 or 12 percent of the population is black, it is likely that no more than 2 or 3 percent of the affluent population is black. Blacks are not spread equally around the country, and according to the National Golf Foundation, only 2.8 percent of golfers are black. So it might not be surprising that three-quarters of America’s private clubs in 1990 have no black members.

In conversations, club members are now revealing their attitudes. “Who needs this? What do they want from us?” say members who prefer not to be quoted. Defending the rights of people to pick and choose whom they would like to socialize with, one member of the exclusive Cypress Point Club, in California, said: “It’s almost demeaning for every major golf club in the country to be running around recruiting black members. Something about that just doesn’t sit right with me.”

A second response is the club member who is a closet liberal and secretly thinks, It’s about time, but is uncertain about his next move. Some members are considering resignation, and others are actively seeking to change club policies. At least one Birmingham businessman dropped out of the Country Club of Birmingham in the wake of the Shoal Creek controversy. But many just wish this problem would go away. It has become a field day for clichés: “Shoal Creek is a can of worms,” or “It opened up a Pandora’s box.” And finally Payne Stewart’s line, “It’s all water under the bridge.”

For many wealthy black golfers, the struggle continues. They’ve had a lot of years to think about this subject. As the Hall Thompson affair grew, club members started to recall the embarrassing occasions when they were asked not to bring a black friend to the club.

It is a situation that promises no quick fixes. Becoming a “token” member is not necessarily an inviting prospect for many self-respecting and successful black businessmen, but some might well agree to this, if only to help the next generation. Some black club members interviewed for this article were upset that Shoal Creek’s board waived its $35,000 initiation fee when it rushed in its first honorary black member, well-to-do businessman Louis Willie.


“That burns me,” said Tom Shropshire, a former senior vice president for Miller Brewing Company, a golfer and a black man who knows these stories firsthand. “I don’t need anyone to give me a darn thing. It degrades the members you are trying to bring in. It’s that old paternalism all over again. You can’t break down the barriers by attacking the clubs themselves. You have to find out who the members are and put pressure on them. Many are community leaders.”

Darwin Davis, senior vice president at Equitable Financial Companies in New York, was a witness before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last June regarding club practices. A dedicated golfer, Davis told the committee that the color of his skin barred him from virtually all of the 74 private country and golf clubs near his home in Stamford, Conn. At one time, a white member from an elite Connecticut club tried to get him into his club. But the member encountered such hostility from friends that he was persuaded to back down. Davis’ testimony received widespread publicity.

In July, Davis received a phone call from a member of Westchester Country Club, site of the 1990 Buick Classic, who said he wanted to sponsor Davis for membership. Westchester had no black members. The sponsor told Davis, “You’re the kind of guy we’d like to have.” Davis was appreciative, but he had just taken up another invitation from St. Andrew’s, also in Westchester County, where he had a friend. Davis is now a full member.

Other forms of more exotic discrimination continue to occur. One exclusive club in New York is rumored to have “no problem” with letting blacks in, but it will not have Italian members. Another club from America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses finds blacks OK, but it has “too many World War II veterans” to allow Japanese. What form of elitist discrimination can be expected from the new Japanese proprietors of American clubs?

While the issue of race might have instigated the controversy, the greatest impact on country club life actually might be through gender discrimination. Women’s rights might also be the more difficult issue to resolve. At many of the nation’s equity clubs, the men own the shares. Membership is traditionally passed on to sons, not daughters.

“Women, that’s where the numbers are,” said one golf expert. Women have long had access to private courses as wives or daughters, but they usually do not hold full memberships, cannot vote and are restricted as to when they can play. In the aftermath of the Shoal Creek publicity, at least two women filed lawsuits over restricted tee times and property rights, adding to a score of cases already in motion. The LPGA now plans to look at a club’s practices as well as its policies. “We will be much stricter,” said LPGA commissioner Bill Blue.

When the PGA Tour and the other governing bodies of golf adopt new policies, they will have to address all forms of discrimination. At least one tournament site is likely to be moved because a club has refused to admit women. Butler National Golf Club, in Oak Brook, Ill., site of the Western Open since 1974, is a men-only club, and it seems adamant about remaining so. Jim Ashenden, president of the Western Golf Association, sponsor of the Western Open, said he was not looking at public courses for the 1991 tournament if Butler definitely chooses to drop out.

Golf courses can be replaced. It is not so easy to replace the money that advertisers take away if they find the atmosphere troubled; it was estimated that ESPN and ABC-TV lost more than $2 million in ad revenues on the PGA Championship telecasts. Though the color barrier was broken at Shoal Creek, the corporate advertisers did not come back.

The fact was not lost on anyone, least of all the PGA Tour, which is absolutely dependent on corporate advertising dollars for its burgeoning purses and TV exposure. Not surprisingly, the tour mounted an offensive. It ultimately gave sponsors and clubs of its 123 events a deadline of January 1991 to open their doors to minorities and women or not host tour events.

The American Golf Sponsors Association, representing 45 events on the regular tour, said it would comply explicitly with the directive that commissioner Beman describes as “now consistent with public policy.” Jeff Monday, administrative director for the sponsors, said he was now looking carefully into host club policies. “This is a complex issue,” Monday said. “It is as much an economic consideration as anything else. We will comply with membership policies and practices recommended by the tour. But we don’t want to support a racist club.”

Site defection will have several consequences. Public courses will be particularly attractive as new sites, as will Tournament Players Clubs or private clubs with a demonstrated record of nondiscrimination in membership. Some of golf’s most historic sites might be lost, and so will the extraordinary revenues that some cities are reaping from major tournament visits.

The PGA of America, which runs the PGA Championship, already has contracts with host clubs through 1994, so it’s quietly applying pressure to these sites to comply.

Augusta National, the club that hosts the Masters each spring, has taken steps in 1990 to find a black member. Hord Hardin, chairman of Augusta, said the search was under way before the Shoal Creek explosion. The United States Golf Association, whose premier event is the U.S. Open, said it would not hold tournaments on courses that segregate in policy or in practice. It is also considering hiring a well-known black leader, Clifford Alexander, to examine the minority issues in clubs and in amateur golf.

“The whole matter is a lot more important than Shoal Creek,” said Alexander, whose Washington consulting firm now advises baseball and tennis on their employment policies. “Admission of minorities into private clubs would have a profound effect on minorities in the workplace. It goes to the mind-set of the corporate leader who sits out there and sees only a lily-white sea of faces.”

The USGA’s 1991 Open will be played at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., considered one of the most progressive clubs in the nation. It does not have a black member now but has in the past. Spouses may decide at any time which one is considered the member with full voting privileges. The club has a long history of single women members; it has no tee-time restrictions.

Reed Mackenzie, general chairman of Hazeltine’s Open committee, said: “We don’t recruit blacks. If you go out and recruit someone, it sounds as if you were guilty of something in the past, and we don’t feel that’s the case with our club.” The 1992 Open is at Pebble Beach, a public course. The 1993 Open is at Baltusrol, in Springfield, N.J., an exclusionary club that’s rethinking its policies regarding blacks and women.

Major professional tournaments make big money, and clubs share in the profits. But what about tournaments that lose money? Should a ruling body ask a club to change its membership for a women’s or men’s state amateur championship, a national junior championship, a national boys or girls junior championship? These would ordinarily not be subject to high levels of publicity or inquiry.

One major effect of Shoal Creek on the local country club is to put the spotlight on the tax benefits that often accrue to private clubs. The question will be whether private country clubs should continue to get tax breaks if they engage in discriminatory membership policies based on race, religion, ethnicity and gender. For example, initiation fees and monthly dues may be paid by an employee’s company or by the employee, and these expenses are often deducted as entertainment or business expenses.

Many clubs enjoy property tax benefits, in part because they are taxed as unimproved farmland. Minnesota and Maryland are especially vigorous in enforcing anti-discrimination codes at country clubs. The theory is, you keep your lucrative “greenbelt” or “open spaces” tax benefit only if you abide by the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who is black and who sits on the powerful House Ways and Means committee, introduced a bill that would amend the IRS code to disallow entertainment expenses for clubs engaging in discriminatory practices.

Rangel says it’s all right with him if private clubs choose to be discriminatory, “so long as they and their members are not in a position to realize tax benefits from their behavior and practices.” Some clubs have already prohibited members from having their companies reimburse their expenses.

Private clubs have long been protected by Constitutional guarantees of “freedom of association,” but those guarantees now have to be balanced against state and local anti-discrimination laws. As legislatures adopt laws to put private clubs under public sanctions, country clubs have moved to make themselves less vulnerable to local ordinances. And some clubs, notably Burning Tree near Washington D.C., have given up their tax exemptions to avoid government regulation.

Will private clubs open their doors? Ultimately that will depend upon the same corporate executives who pulled those ads in the first place. They might meet themselves coming around the corner. As one club member told Golf Digest, almost every corporate executive is also a member of a private, often exclusionary club. Will these power brokers and executives take a leadership role in integrating their own clubs? Golf now awaits the decision.