Did Shoal Creek accomplish anything?
It's a fair question. There are plenty of students of race
relations and the politics of appeasement who believe it was
nothing more than an interesting exercise in damage control,
expedience and tokenism. After the clamor raised when Hall
Thompson acknowledged that Shoal Creek, the club he founded and
the site of the PGA Championship, excluded blacks, some
questioned the long-term effect. The Reverend Joseph Lowery,
president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the
organization that turned up the heat on the PGA of America in
Birmingham with the same command it had demonstrated during
sit-ins at that city's segregated lunch counters in 1963,
sounded resigned when he said in 1991, "Right now, the song
seems ended, and I don't know if the melody lingers on."
It is now five years later, and Shoal Creek has certainly fallen
out of the cultural top 40. But while it may not have been "the
death knell" for exclusionary practices in golf, as some
originally hailed it to be, only the most faithless cynic could
say that it has not produced tangible gains.
Since Shoal Creek, big-time professional and amateur golf
tournaments are no longer played at private clubs that exclude
potential members because of their race, religion or gender.
There are more black members at private clubs and more blacks
employed in the golf industry. Two black men, Leroy Richie and
John Merchant, sit on the executive committee of the United
States Golf Association. There are more junior programs for
inner-city youths, and more corporate funds are targeted for the
development of such programs. According to the best statistics
available, there are an increasing number of minorities playing
golf. And the idea that blacks as a group are indifferent to the
game has been refuted in a recent survey conducted by the USGA
and Golf Digest.
The game has become more accessible, but for the world of golf
to trumpet the gains of Shoal Creek is a little like the auto
industry taking bows for improved air quality in Los Angeles.
Hey, who made the mess in the first place?
Ultimately, the true measure of Shoal Creek is as a state of mind.
Shoal Creek will mean something if it endures as the best kind
of buzzword--the kind that brings people up short and makes them
remember basic fairness. If golf is truly becoming culturally
cool--the obsession of choice for Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan
and Bill Murray, a kind of sociological neutral zone where
everybody can get along--it can't be exclusionary, because there
is nothing cool about racism. And if golf believes there is
truth to the old conceit that 18 holes reveals everything about
a person that there is to know, it can't be a sport whose
segregated backdrop reveals all that anybody needs to know.
Shoal Creek provided an opportunity to set golf free from its
most uncomfortable contradiction--that a game so scrupulously
built on honor and fairness in its practice could be so
insidiously dishonest and unfair in its foundation. It was a
paradox that used to prompt the most impressive ethical
gymnastics from the game's staunchest country club defenders.
Since Shoal Creek, except among kindred spirits, they know it is
better to save their breath.
The best thing about golf is the game, not the accoutrements of
wealth and class, and like any game, it becomes more honorable
when it allows everyone to participate. It pits man against the
elements, testing skill and courage and self-control, and like
all tests of humankind, it induces love. Perhaps the greatest
endorsement golf has ever received is that black men like Teddy
Rhodes and Charlie Sifford never stopped loving it even as the
game's rulers pushed them away. A game that great will overcome
Shoal Creek was yet more evidence that the game, however slowly,
is winning the battle. The melody Lowery referred to does
linger; it echoes a song of public golf that was first played
500 years ago in St. Andrews and reprised when the USGA refused
to exclude a black man named John Shippen from the 1896 U.S. Open.
Shoal Creek means something because it was the latest
B/W PHOTO: JACK SHEEDY Sifford (left) endorsed the game with his devotion. [Charlie Sifford instructing young golfer]