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Original Issue


Tom Watson takes a stand against prejudice

I almost cheered when I read Friday morning's front-page headline in The Kansas City Star, WATSON QUITS CLUB, CITING BIAS.... Tom Watson, winner of eight major golf championships and 32 PGA Tour titles, had resigned from the ultra-restrictive Kansas City Country Club to protest the club's blackballing of tax-preparation tycoon Henry Bloch.

Bloch, the cofounder and chairman of H&R Block, Inc., is Jewish. Watson is not Jewish, but his wife, Linda, and their two children are. Watson said his conscience forced him to resign "out of respect for my family—my wife, my children and myself."

Those close to Watson say he is torn up by the decision, and little wonder. The Kansas City Country Club has been at the center of his universe since he first appeared on its fairways in short pants, learning golf at his father's side. His longtime coach, Stan Thirsk, is the club pro and a second father to Watson. For years, when other touring pros spent the winter sharpening their games in Arizona and Florida, Watson stayed home and hit practice balls into the snow from a mat in the course superintendent's shed.

There was no warning that Watson would step forward on this issue. As recently as last summer, when the Shoal Creek controversy brought the discriminatory practices of private clubs into focus, Watson defended the status quo. He said that people should "chill out" and that private clubs had the right to choose their members. Funny how some of the most important decisions in our lives come unbidden.

Those of us who know both Watson and the Kansas City Country Club have long wondered how he handled the competing loyalties of club and family. How did he insulate his wife, his kids and his brother-in-law. Chuck Rubin, who is also his manager, from the ethnic slurs sometimes voiced in the club's public rooms?

My own feelings about the Kansas City Country Club surely color these remarks. I caddied there a few times in my teens, and, thanks to the Kansas City Junior Golf Association, I even got to play there one Thursday every summer. My notions of upper-class golf were thus formed—from the bottom looking up.

Some of what I saw I liked: the rows of lofty elms and oaks, the steep-faced bunkers, the silky greens. There was more that I disliked: the clubhouse staff's arrogance, the rudeness of certain members and, most of all, the unmistakable message that I was there at their sufferance. It was at the Kansas City Country Club, coincidentally, that I first heard the word kike.

Today I live within walking distance of the club. Like most Kansas Citians, I regard it as a vestige of the mid-century, something from the era of Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, the fictional Kansas City couple created by novelist Evan Connell. The Bridges of this world, I have found, live lives stunted by their simple faith in the "right" neighborhoods, the "right" schools and, of course, the "right" clubs.

I was ticked off, though, when I read that Bloch's candidacy, which was sponsored by Hallmark Cards chairman Donald Hall and seconded by two other major corporate chairmen, never got to the club's board for a vote. Bloch was thwarted by a five-man membership committee. This star chamber is so secret that only the club's president and secretary know its composition. Its members may not wear hoods during their deliberations, but their performance this time was sufficient to embarrass not just the club but the city as well.

That's the galling part of the Bloch affair. I suspect that many—possibly most—of the club's members hold Henry Bloch in high regard and would welcome him as a member. Undoubtedly, others are comfortable with the idea of Hispanic, Asian or black members. But until now fear has kept decent people from speaking out.

Fear of what, you ask? Why, the greatest fear of all—that they will no longer be accepted by their peers. Sounds trivial, but social acceptance is the glue that binds a city's power elite. Mavericks don't get the big contracts, the special tax abatements, the school buildings named in their honor.

By their recent actions, Bloch's sponsors and Watson have lifted that veil of fear. Already, prominent Kansas City Country Club members are publicly distancing themselves from the bigotry. Either Bloch or another Jewish candidate will be accepted soon, they say, or there will be more resignations. "It's going to change," vows one of the reformers. "I'm convinced of that."

The place to start, if an outsider may offer a suggestion, is with that secret membership committee. Flush those scrofulous characters into the open, make them accountable for their actions, and they won't be so quick to smear and denigrate. Next, do whatever it takes to get Tom Watson back in the fold. A friend of the Watson family says, "He's hurting something fierce right now."

Watson's pain may ease when he realizes that in his children's eyes, and in ours, this single act of conscience will one day count for more than all the trophies he has won with his clubs.