AS ONE of the biggest golfing events of the year, the PGA Championship gets considerable attention around the country, including heavy TV coverage. But as in most major golf tournaments, one topic is regularly swept under the carpet: the matter of race, which -- if it is spoken of at all -- is discussed in the hushed tones of a TV announcer describing a crucial putt. The fact is, though, that many country clubs that play host to major tournaments are bastions of racial and ethnic discrimination.

Last month William Bell, a member of the city council in Birmingham, Ala., brought an end to this long and genteel silence by objecting to the city's purchase of a $1,500 ad in the program for this year's PGA Championship, which is to be held at the all-white Shoal Creek Country Club near Birmingham. The complaint led to a news interview in which Shoal Creek's founder, Hall Thompson, was quoted as saying the club would not be pressured into accepting black members. That led in turn to a local flap, protests and an apology by Mr. Thompson, who said the club would cease to exclude blacks.

More important, it drew the attention of corporate TV sponsors. Toyota, IBM, Anheuser-Busch and American Honda Motor Co. withdrew their commercials from the tournament. Birmingham's Richard Arrington, first black mayor of a city with a troubled racial history, has sought to calm the storm, noting that country clubs "all over the country practice discrimination."

In that he is right. Earlier this year a black executive at Equitable Financial Companies told a House committee of his attempts to find a club where he could play golf near his home in Connecticut; he was turned down by 74 of them. The Professional Golfers Association now says it will consider racial discrimination by a country club in deciding whether to schedule a tournament there. But the next four PGA Championship sites have already been scheduled, and three of the clubs involved -- one near Philadelphia, the others in Indiana and Oklahoma -- have no black members, according to the Los Angeles Times.

We suspect that situation will change, especially if more corporate sponsors indicate their distaste for this sort of thing. The prospect of losing out on a big tournament could do a lot to convey the message that while discrimination may be legal, it isn't respectable at all.