BIRMINGHAM -- About 35 miles north of Shoal Creek and all its swirling controversies, on the top of a hill overlooking Birmingham sits another country club, Highland Racquet Club. Its fairways are properly manicured and the facilities seem comfortable enough, though hardly reeking of opulence like Shoal Creek. And there is another difference. Highland is open, really open, to the public.

One of the three men who lease it from the city of Birmingham is a black businessman. An estimated 20 percent of the members, maybe more, are black. They pay $300 a year to play there, plus greens fees. John Dorsey, one of those black members, was given two tickets to the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, but gave them away. "If I can't play there, why bother go watch somebody else play?" Dorsey asked. Instead, he played golf Thursday with his usual fivesome, along with Willie Ashford, Earl Cheatham, A.C. Griggs and Lee Gurley.

Ashford started to make the drive to Shoal Creek, to see Jim Thorpe -- the only black golfer in the tournament -- tee off, but the traffic was so bad he turned around. Ashford, who works at Mount Brook Club, has mixed feelings about all that's gone on at Shoal Creek in the weeks since its exclusionary membership policies -- in other words, Blacks Need Not Apply -- became national news. He's known Hall Thompson, the founder of Shoal Creek, most of his life.

"I couldn't believe he said that, about not wanting black members, because I've known him for 35 years," Ashford said. "It's nothing for him to say, 'Willie, any time you want to play, call me.' There have been times when he's said to me, 'Hey Willie, let's go up on the range and see what's wrong {with his game}.' I've always thought Hall Thompson was a decent guy."

John Dorsey isn't so sure. His father, Pappy, was the caddymaster back in the 1950s when Highland was the Birmingham Country Club and blacks were not allowed to be members. John Dorsey caddied for Hall Thompson. "I always thought he had that Alabama mindset, that I was okay as long as I stayed in my place," he said. "I wasn't surprised he said it. What I can't believe is that they seem to have quieted everything up by bringing in one honorary member. What a joke. I was going to have a sign to picket. Is everything supposed to be different now because they offer honorary membership to one man {local businessman Louis Willie}, a guy who hasn't played golf in 15 years? I guess everybody's pacified now."

A few feet away, a white teenager, about 13 years old, practiced his putting. Dorsey knew him and waved. "You see that kid? He can go out and practice all day at Shoal Creek."

It's an interesting sort of "integration" at Highland. Threesomes and foursomes of black men walk the fairways; threesomes and foursomes of white men walk the fairways. On the tennis courts, white women play together on one court; four black women play doubles two courts over. Separate, but integrated, right? Dorsey said: "We're up here so regularly and we're not forced on them. . . . It's getting better, it's gotten to the place where they do say hello now."

Herbert Acton, 74 and white, remembers winning the Jefferson County golf tournament in 1951. He never thought he'd see the day blacks could play here. "Not til Martin Luther started. . . . Then, I thought it might be possible. But you know, since Bull Conner, we get along fine.

"We don't have no problems here. Hell with Shoal Creek. I wouldn't golf there if they gave me a membership free. Can't get a game there. You get a game here any time you want. I like these colored guys. Hall Thompson's a pretty good civic man, but he let his mouth overload his butt. I'd rather golf here with my colored guys than go over there with them so-called rich guys.

"Hell, not as many of them are rich as people think. You know their companies pay those memberships. Every white guy out there ain't got $35,000. No, I'll stay right here where I can get a game. See that colored boy out there, Skeet? Hell, I'd soon as play with him as any of them at Shoal Creek."

Dorsey, Gurley and Ashford are the real golf addicts. Gurley was a pro, a PGA member, the only black pro in New England for many years. "Louis Willie doesn't play golf," he said. "Nothing but a front. . . . Do I want to play at Shoal Creek? Never dawned on me. Hall Thompson's a hell of a nice fellow though. I figure, Shoal Creek is like his house, he can invite whoever he wants. We got lots of black businessmen with money here, we ought to build our own place."

A visitor from Washington, D.C., used to a more confrontational style when dealing with racial matters, comes away from Highland with the impression that too many people here, blacks included, feel that denying blacks access to a country club is no big thing. Not with a war raging in another part of the world. That's the popular line now, especially for white people, "Can you believe all the attention going to Shoal Creek while there's a war in the Middle East?"

But fighting discrimination in America is a war black Americans wage every day, so to some of us, this war seems a little more important than the one over there.

That's where Dorsey comes from. He served in the U.S. Army for 25 years and is retired, still serving his country every day by working in the VA hospital, even though he may not need the money.

"In the Army," Dorsey said, "I played everywhere in the world. I played in Vietnam, in Thailand, in Panama, in Okinawa. They would see how good I was -- I'm a one-handicap -- and they'd invite me, a U.S. serviceman, to play for free. They opened their arms to you. I loved it because I love golf. I'm divorced because of golf. I'm a single parent, and I give my kid fifty bucks to just sit at home and let me go play golf.

"But when I came back home, I realized I had given up a certain degree of freedom. This ain't about Shoal Creek, man. I don't care about breaking bread or getting to know Hall Thompson's relatives. I want to play golf. I drive to Fort McCullough three days a week, I play at North Birmingham, the black club we call our home club. I drive to Maxwell to play on the weekends.

"But a black man in Birmingham has to struggle for every inch. The Birmingham Country Club stopped having Open tournaments, and you can check it out, after a black man shot the lights out and won one back in the early 1970s. I've been on golf courses all over the world, but I come home from serving my country and have to fight just so a guy who's no better golfer than me will let me golf where he goes. I miss the freedom I had in the world, man. That's what this is about."