U.S. Women's Open host Shoal Creek moving forward from racist past

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR

Shoal Creek founder Hall Thompson's words, and the club's subsequent steps to change, didn't make everything better with golf's discrimination problem, but it helped a lot.

If the rain ever stops, there will be some impressive shots hit this week in the 73rd U.S. Women's Open at Shoal Creek a bit south of Birmingham, Alabama, shots that soar hit by the best female golfers in the world.

As the field of 156 players gets ready for the championship, though, I keep thinking about a ball I watched driven off Shoal Creek's opening hole by a woman seven years ago.

For a shot that didn't travel 200 yards, it made a big impression.

The golfer was Birmingham native Dr. Condoleezza Rice, striking a ceremonial tee ball to begin the Regions Traditions, a major on PGA Tour Champions and Shoal Creek's first significant professional event since 1990, when the club's name became shorthand for golf's culture of exclusion.

"Our country's been turning a chapter for a while," Rice, a Shoal Creek member and the first African-American woman to be secretary of state, told me that morning. "We have a tough history [regarding race relations], and you always need to remember that, but you also need to see how far our country has come. To me, this speaks to that."

Most of the golfers competing at Shoal Creek this week (average age slightly under 26), weren't even born when, leading up to the 1990 PGA Championship, Shoal Creek founder Hall Thompson talked about the club's membership policy with a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper.

"I think we've said that we don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks," Thompson said.

Sadly, the words could have been spoken by the leaders of quite a few private golf clubs across the United States at that time -- and a great deal more than that if religion or ethnicity took the place of race as a reason for keeping someone out. It was the way golf had been, the way golf still was.

Thompson's 15 words, though, took many people back nearly 30 years to a period when his city was an epicenter for racial turmoil during the civil rights movement with children killed, protestors beaten, Martin Luther King Jr. jailed in a state whose governor, George Wallace, was an ardent segregationist.

Because a white man -- a civic leader and successful businessman -- from Birmingham told the blunt reality of where things still stood a long time since those turbulent days, his admission reverberated widely. Laws are one thing, but life is another.

I'd covered the 1984 PGA Championship and 1986 U.S. Amateur at Shoal Creek. The club's policies weren't any different than they were in 1990, but Thompson hadn't talked about who wasn't allowed to join his club with a journalist prior to those tournaments, and no one with a notebook poked around to find out. For many decades, plenty of golf tournaments were held at places where skin color or faith kept people from becoming members at private courses where they bought tickets to watch talented golfers perform in public.

Thompson's candor threw a spotlight on the sport's open secret, and the glare was harsh -- on him, his club, golf's governing bodies and the professional tours. Some things did change. With the possibility of large protests threatening to roil the '90 PGA Championship, the PGA Tour, LPGA, PGA of America and USGA evolved to the extent of requiring private clubs holding their tournaments to show that they had nondiscriminatory membership policies.

Shoal Creek welcomed an African-American member. Others have followed, including Rice. The club has hosted college, regional and qualifying events as well as the 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur prior to being the five-year home of the Regions Tradition.

The golf world of 2018 is different than it was in 1990. The sport and its culture are more inclusive than they once were. Formal discrimination is more in the rear-view mirror now than it was at the time of the 1990 PGA Championship. Golf is more diverse -- 27 countries are represented in the U.S. Women's Open -- yet there were the same number of African-American golfers playing in the 1990 PGA than there are this week. (Cheyenne Woods, Tiger's niece, is in the field.)

Shoal Creek didn't cause golf's discrimination problem, and Thompson's words and the club's subsequent steps to change didn't make everything better everywhere. But it helped a lot. Thompson died in 2010 at age 87, having changed and having seen the changes. His son Mike is in charge at Shoal Creek now, and landing the U.S. Women's Open was a big deal for the club as it, like the larger world of golf, keeps writing new chapters.

As the women play at Shoal Creek this week, athletes from many places with many stories, they should know the history as they attempt to make some of it themselves. Things can change for the better, and they have.

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