Shoal Creek will return to major championship golf this week. Those two words are more important than the golf course where the PGA Tour will conduct one of its senior majors beginning Thursday at the misnamed Tradition.
In an ironic twist, the Tradition was first held in 1990, the same year that Shoal Creek became as much a part of golf lexicon as the green jacket or the claret jug.
That certainly wasn’t the intent of Hall Thompson, who founded the club outside Birmingham in 1977 and wanted to build a course worthy of major championships. He got his wish quickly, when the PGA Championship was played there in 1984. The PGA of America was so pleased with the way the event went – Lee Trevino was the winner – that it announced the championship would return in 1990.
It was shortly before the major was scheduled to return to Shoal Creek that, as the police like to say, the incident began.
It started with what should have been a routine pre-tournament, isn’t-it-great-the-PGA-is-returning interview with Thompson in the Birmingham Post Herald. During the interview Thompson was asked about the lack of black members at Shoal Creek. Thompson pointed out that Shoal Creek had women members and it had Jewish members.
“We don’t discriminate in any other area except blacks,” he said. “This is our home and we pick and choose who we want.”
The firestorm started soon after the story appeared. Thompson tried to claim he has been misquoted but the argument didn’t take. Then he apologized. Still, there were demands that the PGA move the event elsewhere just weeks before it was scheduled to begin.
It was Jim Awtrey, then the CEO of the PGA of America, who saved the situation. Rather than play the ‘misquoted’ card or try to downplay what had been said, Awtrey recognized that he had a crisis on his hands. In fact, he hired a crisis manager from New York to advise him on how to deal with something neither he nor anyone else in golf had ever dealt with.
Finally, Thompson and his members were convinced to invite a local Birmingham businessman named Louis Willie to join the club immediately as an honorary member. Even though the move was seen as political it quieted things enough to allow the PGA to hold the tournament at Shoal Creek.
Wayne Grady won and never again won anything that mattered. But Shoal Creek continued to matter.
The PGA of America, PGA Tour and U.S. Golf Association all changed rules in the wake of Shoal Creek to say that any club that discriminated in any way – which was and is a private club’s legal right – could not host one of their tournaments. That’s why Cypress Point, one of the host clubs for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for years and Butler National, which had hosted the Western Open, no longer are part of the PGA Tour.
It was soon after Shoal Creek that Augusta National Golf Club invited Gannett executive Ron Townsend to become it’s first African-American member. Now, Augusta National remains an all-male club, but the event is run specifically by Augusta National, not the PGA Tour.
That said, Shoal Creek, was a landmark moment in the history of golf. That certainly wasn’t Thompson’s intention and was not the way the PGA of America wanted to call attention to its premiere event. But Shoal Creek will be a part of golf history forever.
Thompson died last fall at the age of 87, knowing that an important golf event would finally be returning to his club. Louis Willie died at the age of 84 in 2007 having been a member of the club since 1990. Their connection and their legacy may not be what their family members would want them remembered for but there is no doubt that the events of 1990 cemented their place in the sports pantheon. There’s an old line about knowing what the first sentence in someone’s obituary will be. It is no surprise that the words, ‘Shoal Creek,’ appear in the first sentence of both men’s obituaries.
Most of the players teeing it up Thursday in what is now called the Regions Tradition were on the PGA Tour when Shoal Creek happened. Most will say it is ancient history, hardly worthy of mention and that the focus should be on the golf tournament being played this week. That’s simply not true.
It is a measure of the progress made that the Tour can return to Shoal Creek with nary a political whimper heard and that the club they are returning to is integrated in all ways. Shoal Creek was an important moment in golf history – an accidental bridge from an embarrassing past to a better present and a vastly improved future.