Shoal Creek resurfacing on national golf scene

Published 9:11 pm Saturday, July 19, 2008

For many outside the imposing gates of this picturesque and secluded golf and country club, the name still conjures memories of the racial tempest that swirled around the 1990 PGA Championship. For others, the exclusive club has faded from golf’s national consciousness altogether.

Shoal Creek believes those perceptions will begin to change now that it has finally lured another national tournament, the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship that begins Monday and runs through next Saturday.

“We’ve been trying to get golf back since 1990,” said Mike Thompson, the event’s general chairman and son of Shoal Creek founder Hall Thompson.

What took so long? That’s easy.

Hall Thompson’s comments that his club would not be pressured into accepting black members – and the fact that it had none at the time – stirred controversy just before Shoal Creek’s hosting of the PGA Championship. The rancor prompted major golf organizations to adopt membership policies for tournament sites.

Several major sponsors – including Anheuser-Busch, Toyota and IBM – yanked TV ads and black organizations threatened to picket outside. Hall Thompson, now 85, later apologized.

Eighteen years later, the United States Golf Association is once again bringing a significant event to a course that hosted two PGA Championships and the 1986 U.S. Amateur Championship.

Shoal Creek is hoping it’s the start of a public renewal.

“Time has melted away and we are now being taken seriously,” Mike Thompson said. “We’ve got such a great venue. We’ve got a dedicated membership that works their fingers to the bone. This is kind of our reorientation to golf.

“We’re just hoping to launch Shoal Creek back into the game of golf.”

Shoal Creek now has 600 members, and four of them are black, he said, adding that 10 blacks have been contacted about joining since 1990 and two have indicated they intend to apply in the future.

Economics limit the invitation-only applicants, whatever their skin color: The initiation fee is $65,000 in addition to monthly dues of about $500 for the club nestled between the lush Oak and Double Oak mountains, according to Thompson.

The USGA, like the PGA and LPGA, scrutinizes membership before awarding an event to a site in a policy put in place after the Shoal Creek episode in 1990. USGA officials interviewed members, including black members, to make sure a club not only has an open membership policy but practices it, executive director David Fay said.

“We looked at the Shoal Creek membership makeup and we were satisfied that there were no problems,” Fay said. “We were extra diligent in the vetting process.”

The Associated Press was unable to reach any of the black members, but other prominent blacks in the community echoed Thompson’s sentiment that it’s time to move on from 1990.

Marketing and public relations executive Jesse Lewis, founder of the weekly Birmingham Times newspaper, said he is pulling for Shoal Creek with the Junior Amateur and future events.

“We have to stop fighting the Civil War,” said Lewis, a past critic of Shoal Creek. “I think the people at Shoal Creek – and I can’t speak for them – have decided that what they did was a mistake in the past. And everybody in the community needs to support that event, including black people.

“We cannot consistently live in the past.”

Yvonne Willie’s late husband, black insurance executive Louis Willie, was made an honorary member in 1990 to diffuse the controversy. Willie said she and her husband received a standing ovation when they walked into the club afterward for dinner, and she remains a member.

“There are a lot of fine people out there,” she said. “Hall Thompson has become our friend, he and his wife. I’ve never been shunned. I’ve always been highly welcomed.”

Hall Thompson declined interview requests made through his son, who said his father stopped talking to the media shortly after the 1990 tournament.

At the time, Hall Thompson stated his view: “The country club is our home, and we pick and choose who we want. We have the right to associate or not associate with whomever we choose.”

The younger Thompson said Shoal Creek officials have talked to all the major golf organizations – PGA, LPGA, Champions, PGA of America and the USGA – about hosting tournaments since then and got “pretty close” to landing the PGA’s Tour Championship in 2002.

They also had discussions about the Champions Tour event long hosted at nearby Greystone before moving two years ago to Ross Bridge in Hoover. The upcoming Junior Amateur is a chance to restore the image.

“We think it’s important to show the 2008 version of Shoal Creek,” Thompson said. “A lot of people are fixated on the 1990 version and what was said about it, which we said was corrected and nobody believed us.”

The Junior Amateur – with past competitors like Tiger Woods and David Duval – is a start, if not a huge fan draw because much of it consists of match play and none of the participants are big names yet.

Wayne Gillis, a Shoal Creek member since 1978, believes it will still have a nice turnout. And 1990? He figures that’s old news.

“I think our community is over the other. That’s history,” Gillis said. “We’re looking to the future. We’ve got 42 sponsors that came on board with us within two weeks once we announced that we were going to do this.

“It’s really a dead issue now. That’s 18 years ago. We’re proud of what we’ve got here. We wish it hadn’t happened. It did.”