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No-Blacks Policy at PGA Site : Golf: Tournament draws controversy when Birmingham, Ala., councilman protests membership at Shoal Creek Country Club.

June 22, 1990|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with a public relations nightmare, the Professional Golfers' Assn. of America moved quickly Thursday to distance itself from a growing racial controversy at Shoal Creek Country Club, site of the 1990 PGA Championship.

For the second time in the last six years, the prestigious tournament--one of four major golf events--returns to the Shoal Creek course, near Birmingham, Ala. This time, however, questions have been raised concerning the club's longstanding refusal to allow blacks as members. Caught in the middle of the debate is the PGA, which selected Shoal Creek as the host of the Aug. 9-12 tournament.

"In no way does the PGA condone discrimination," said Andy O'Brien, PGA director of media relations. "When we made the decision in 1984 to come back in 1990, there were no discrimination issues (raised) at the time."

There are now. William Bell, a Birmingham city councilman, has protested the use of city funds to help pay for an advertisement in the tournament program. According to Bell, a 10-year-old resolution prohibits the city from financially supporting an event where formal or de facto discrimination occurs.

That advertisement was authorized by Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, who is black.

"I don't want to give any more national exposure to this than is already out there," Bell said. "You should talk with Shoal Creek. They're the ones who have put in an unwritten policy that won't allow (blacks) as members or even out there as guests. This is one organization headed up by one man who has an antiquated view."

Bell referred to Hall Thompson, the founder of Shoal Creek. Thompson told reporters Wednesday that blacks weren't allowed at the country club because "that's just not done in Birmingham," adding, in an Associated Press story:

"Bringing up this issue will just polarize the community. . . . But it can't pressure us. The country club is our home, and we pick and choose who we want."

All of this is rather unsettling to the PGA, which would prefer to worry about pin placements instead of public outrage. According to O'Brien, the PGA is an innocent bystander, unaware until now of discriminatory practices by Shoal Creek.

"It's more of a Shoal Creek problem than a PGA problem," he said. "We can't control what the club does 50 weeks a year. We control what happens there for two weeks."

Pat Rielly, president of the PGA and head professional at Pasadena's Annandale Golf Club, could not be reached for comment Thursday. He told the Associated Press Wednesday that Shoal Creek's membership decisions have become an issue "in the last two years." He added that the PGA is helpless when the discrimination is instituted through unwritten rules, as is apparently the case at Shoal Creek.

As current PGA policy reads, tournament sites are selected on the basis of operational advantages rather than specific membership policies.

At least one of the next four PGA Championship sites also has an unwritten discriminatory rule similar to that at Shoal Creek. And at least two of the other three clubs do not have a black on their membership rolls.

An official of the Aronimink Golf Club, near Philadelphia, site of the 1993 PGA Championship, said that no blacks are allowed to join. "There is no written policy," said the official, who is familiar with the membership of the club. "We do not have any blacks as members, and I don't think any have ever applied. It's rather understood that's not acceptable."

Officials of both Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., site of next year's PGA Championship, and Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmund, Okla., the host of the 1994 event, said blacks are permitted to join their facilities. At this time, however, there are no black members of Crooked Stick or Oak Tree.

Richard Shoemaker, tournament chairman of Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, site of the 1992 PGA Championship, declined to comment on his club's membership or rules.

The Shoal Creek issue, as it relates to the city of Birmingham, probably will be resolved next Tuesday when the City Council meets. Bell said he wants Thompson or a representative of Shoal Creek to state for the record that blacks are welcome as members at the club. If not, he wants the city to withdraw its financial support for the program advertisement.

As for the PGA, which is a separate entity from the PGA Tour, O'Brien said it will pay more attention to the membership policies of potential tournament sites. "Should this come up in the future, sure, it would be an issue," he said.

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