There is an old maxim about blacks and whites on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line: "In the south, blacks and whites are not intimate but close; in the north, they are close but not intimate." Hall Thompson, the white and harried founder of the Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham called Louis Willie, his 66-year-old black friend, Tuesday morning to tell him the club had voted to grant him honorary membership. Thompson and Willie have been "intimate" for years but they are just not socially close. Never have been; or as Thompson honestly but innocently intoned in words that focused the original attention on Shoal Creek: "It's just not done here in Birmingham."
While Thompson's words incited outrage and were indeed unfortunate and inappropriate, he didn't at all mean what most readers thought he meant, that the idea of blacks as members of Shoal Creek was a ridiculous notion for racist reasons. He really meant that the customary social conventions in Birmingham kept black and white contacts historically confined by mutual agreement to activities like fund-raisers and community-wide projects.
"It's just not done" could have been more palatably stated as "Well, I know blacks here who I'm sure will call me a friend but we have pretty much socialized with our own." As a southerner myself from Richmond, I was not at all surprised to read that Shoal Creek eventually decided to admit blacks after years of lily white memberships. (So too apparently have Augusta National in Georgia and Baltusrol in New Jersey.) Birmingham is small enough so everyone knows everyone else. Thompson, a proper southern gentleman, couldn't hold his head high or walk respectably down Main Street if he had stonewalled the issue of properly credentialed black membership. All of Western Civilization was watching, for heaven sakes.
Thus, Shoal Creek -- site of this week's PGA Championship -- is to be spared the ignominy of becoming a racist generic metaphor in the annals of sports; like Selma was in the civil rights movement.
From the age of 14 until my retirement at 36 I played in tennis tournaments at dozens of Shoal Creeks in America. They let me play -- even use the golf course -- but I could not have been a member. My choice was either to go ahead and play, or not play at all. Even now I am often invited for a round of golf at clubs with no black members, and I frequently accept.
While Shoal Creek is acquitting itself reasonably, the sport of golf can call few character witnesses in its defense on racial matters. Though enjoying unprecedented and growing popularity in many places, it has done so as a result of planned ethnic segregation at private and exclusive residential developments. The more exclusive -- racially, that is -- the higher the price one can charge for initation fees and building lots. Sometimes the issue has nothing to do with memberships. For example, the apron just a few yards east of the 18th green of the Harbor Town golf course on Hilton Head Island, S.C. (site of the PGA's Heritage Classic), sits atop an old cemetery for blacks.
In the early 1950s municipal golf course restrictions were the object of lawsuits by black groups. But by 1960, it was more important to be able to get a sandwich at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., than play in the Greater Greensboro Open.
Golf's touring professionals also have been conspicuous by their almost complete apolitical postures during past controversies. The quoted comments of Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller about Shoal Creek are disappointing and show a steady lack of sensitivity.
Corporations now have decisions they are forced to make. There is a true and much repeated story making the rounds among New York City's black business professionals for the past four months. It seems a well-known CEO of a well-known company recently asked a friend who is also the CEO of a well-known company about a club membership for one of his senior subordinates.
"Why sure," said the second CEO, who wielded clout and influence at the club, "bring him over and I'll take care of it." But when the black, very fast-track subordinate was brought over, there was consternation and silence; then a vague promise to "look into it." The membership was never offered, of course.
Perhaps the most unfortunate reminder of how American institutions and practices sometimes pervert noble intentions was the British Open just last month. This major championship was played at Scotland's St. Andrews, the acknowledged "home course" of the sport worldwide. St. Andrews is a public course.