BIRMINGHAM -- Jim Thorpe walked from the clubhouse to the first tee; actually, it was more like a crawl. More than a dozen cameramen and still photographers clogged his path. Club members and fans stared, whispered. Thorpe, in case you didn't know, is a black golfer. He is the only black golfer among the 150 here at the PGA Championship. He is also the only one who, as of a month ago, would have been turned down, had he applied for membership, because of his race.
Some people are surprised Thorpe is here. Why didn't he boycott? "Hell, if I boycott this then I'd have to find a job," Thorpe said. "I'd have to boycott 95 percent of the tournaments."
That, not Shoal Creek, is the issue worth getting mad over. An Associated Press survey reported that the next four PGA Championships will be played at all-white clubs; three of the next four U.S. Opens will be played at clubs with no black members; the next two U.S. Women's Opens will be played at all-white clubs. If bigots don't want to let black people join, the heck with them. I'd rather die and go to hell than pay $35,000 to sit and schmooze with people who, despite their own ignorances, think I'm unfit to be in their company.
Still, golf's governing bodies shouldn't hold tournaments at such clubs, not if the clubs indicated that black people (or for that matter, women, Jews, Hispanics, etc.) are not welcome.
We will not get carried away with heaping credit on the PGA of America, the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA Tour for renouncing private clubs that have exclusionary membership practices. If IBM, Honda, Spalding and Toyota hadn't pulled their television advertising, would the PGA have contemplated moving the tournament, or pressured Shoal Creek into its concession, however minor?
You don't receive praise when forced to do something that simple decency dictates.
In fact, this is not the first time the PGA has had to be wrestled to the mat over blatant bigotry. In 1962, 15 years after Jackie Robinson had broken major league baseball's color line, the PGA wanted to stage its championship at Brentwood Country Club in Southern California. Fortunately, the state's attorney general, Stanley Mosk, found a startling clause in the PGA bylaws that restricted membership to "Caucasians only." Mosk told the PGA to remove the clause or move the tournament; the PGA, rather than do the decent thing, moved the site to Philadelphia. So we're talking about a legacy of blatant disregard for civil rights.
The best way to combat that kind of un-Americanism is through economic sanctions. That's what Toyota, Honda, IBM and Spalding did, in effect. Even bigots understand the loss of millions of dollars, whether they live in Capetown or suburban Birmingham. In fact, it may be the only thing they understand.
The moment Shoal Creek realized how much money its bigotry could cost the community, an estimated $30 million in business generated from the presence of the tournament, it ran to find an "honorary member." This came about a month after Shoal Creek founder Hall Thompson said that a member bringing a black guest to the club is something "that's just not done in Birmingham."
Strangely enough, Thompson's Campanis-like comments may be the catalyst for change throughout professional and amateur golf. It's also ironic that Thompson, one of the city's biggest philanthropists, is seen throughout much of black Birmingham as not a bad guy. "He opened up something that should have been opened 20, 30 years ago," Thorpe said, adding that the honorary member, Louis Willie -- a local businessman -- is not the test. The banker or the car dealer or the mortician who comes along and wants to join Shoal Creek after the cameras have been turned off will be the real test. And if he isn't accepted, "then you've wasted your ink and your film," Thorpe told reporters.
Personally, it would be a shame if Birmingham's black businessmen flock to Shoal Creek now. At $35,000 a head just to be initiated (plus monthly dues), some of those entrepreneurs could build their own country club. That possibility also occurred to Thorpe, who talked about friends who built their own clubs when the existing ones kept them out.
Thorpe is known as one of the good guys on the tour, well-liked by his peers and reporters. He believes the entire issue of blacks belonging to elite country clubs is silly, "because we've got so much more to worry about, like the war on drugs in our neighborhoods and making sure these kids get better educations." But some insensitive comments have struck a nerve, even in him.
Payne Stewart's revealing remark, that some players here are beginning to joke about it, angered a lot of people. "Sometimes, you just have to overlook ignorance," is how Thorpe responded. It was only last week that a white, while presenting Thorpe with an award of some kind, asked him if he was going to play "at Soul Creek" this week.
Before we get too carried away cuffing professional golf about the head, it's necessary to point out that the tour and its clubs aren't the real problem. They're just a symptom. By the way, there were the same number of black writers in the Shoal Creek media room today as black golfers in the clubhouse, and black members on the roll: One. This one.