BIRMINGHAM, AUG. 6 -- There were no picket lines or protests at Shoal Creek Country Club today, just an uncomfortable silence. Players drifted into town for the PGA Championship with something like wariness, caught squarely between a civil rights issue and a golf tournament.
Formerly all-white Shoal Creek has been the focus of controversy since June, when founder Hall Thompson acknowledged the club discriminated against blacks. After civil rights leaders threatened to protest the tournament and sponsor withdrawals of television advertising, a compromise was reached last week as the club agreed to accept a black as an immediate honorary member and consider another under its regular membership process. But it didn't end there: Debate has persisted as golf has been labeled a haven for discrimination, and no one is sure whether the PGA that starts Thursday will be more of a championship or a discussion.
Players were largely insulated from the controversy, but with their arrival today they confronted it and some disturbing questions. Some chose not to deal with them, preferring to dwell on the impending tournament, the last major of the season.
"I'm here to play golf," said Hubert Green. "It's the PGA, it's a major championship. I'm not going to talk about it, I'm going to play golf."
It was an unfamiliar position, and in some cases even an awkward one for a set of athletes used to contemplating nothing more serious, though admittedly wrenching, than personal livelihoods that depend on the flight of a dimpled ball. There was two-time U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson, worrying over constitutional questions with his golf bag on his shoulder, here was 1977 PGA Championship titlist Lanny Wadkins weighing responsibilities on the practice tee, and two-time PGA winner Dave Stockton, wanting his lunch but pausing to consider long-term implications.
Lee Trevino, the 1984 PGA champion at Shoal Creek, calls Thompson a good friend but considered withdrawing before the compromise was reached, a Mexican American who experienced ostracism early in his career.
"I didn't know if there was going to be a golf tournament the way things were going," he said. "I don't like to get into controversy. I think they're going to make it right."
It was indicative of how sensitive the issue is that even players' reticence to comment has become something of an issue in itself. "I don't understand their reasoning," Simpson said. "I guess they're afraid they'll offend somebody."
One question players are grappling with is whether golf bodies have been indifferent in staging tournaments at clubs with discriminatory policies. The next four PGA Championships and four of the next five U.S. Opens are scheduled to be held at clubs with no black members. Reportedly, 17 of 43 PGA Tour sites do not have black members. Previously, host clubs were selected on the basis of quality of course and marketability. "You don't think they were looking for all-white clubs, do you?" Stockton said. "They were looking for the best courses."
In response, the PGA Tour, which oversees the regular men's events, already has announced that it will ban clubs with exclusionary policies from hosting tournaments in the future. The PGA of America, which oversees this event, has scheduled an announcement for Wednesday on its new site selection policy, and the United States Golf Association is reevaluating its clubs as well. That is welcome news to Trevino, who recalled instances in the early 1960s when he was denied permision to play at some clubs.
"Times change, man," he said. "This isn't 1863 or 1864, it's 1990. If a man can afford to join a club and conducts himself properly, it shouldn't matter what the hell color he is. It was going to happen eventually."
But those actions won't necessarily resolve the issue either. A common response of private clubs in the last weeks to inquiries about membership practices is that no blacks have applied. Trevino contended a subtle form of discouragement has been at work.
"The reason is they probably knew they'd get turned down," he said. "I wouldn't go anywhere I'm not welcome, not a golf course, or a bar, or a restaurant, or somebody's home."
The chief question confronting the sport's authorities, and also the players, is to what extent they are answerable to the exclusionary policies of private clubs. Golf's governing bodies always have prided themselves on a so-called "clean" sport, with no evident drug or misconduct problems. So there is a pervasive sense of being taken aback at the discovery of such a major problem. According to Wadkins, if there was an offense, it was a certain blind spot.
"I don't think anything has ever been intentional," he said. "I don't think the players feel they slighted minorities. It wasn't callousness. We didn't check the membership lists. Nobody did. Maybe it's wrong the tournaments have been held there and organizations condoned it. But it was not intentional."
Stockton, who has close ties to the PGA of America and will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team next year, said players may feel out of their depths when discussing the issue. Golf is a game that requires a large measure of self-absorption, is extremely insular as well, and close examination of outside issues is not conducive to championship play.
"Just because we play golf doesn't make us smarter," Stockton said. "A lot of people seem to think the more golf tournaments you win, the smarter you are.
"I think a lot of us didn't realize there was a problem. We're golfers, not politicians. I mean, if I influence one 9- or 10-year-old kid by the way I play, white or black, then I've had a great week. You don't do it with words."
There also was some sentiment that the PGA Tour and PGA of America have been more conscientious on the issue than they have been given credit for. A portion of the income from PGA Tour is given to a wide range of charitable causes. Over the last two years the tour has worked with various city programs to develop affordable municipal courses, including a cash contribution and other aid to inner city programs in Detroit and Miami. According to Stockton, there already have been discussions about allocating revenue from the Ryder Cup to golf scholarships for minorities.
"The opportunity is there," said Wadkins, the son of a truck driver who didn't find golf easily accessible. "Not as much as it should have been, but they're trying to rectify that."
Side by side with the economics of the issue is the fact that private clubs have the right to free assembly. But the decisions by the PGA Tour and PGA of America on site selections mean that clubs must make a decision: continue exclusionary policies or forfeit their roles as tournament hosts. In a community such as Birmingham, to which the PGA Championship will bring an estimated $30 million in business, that becomes a hugely complicated choice.
"I think it's more complicated than strictly a black or white issue," Simpson said. "It's easy to jump on the bandwagon. But at the same time golf does need to open itself more to minorities."