It was an open secret, ignored under the guise of privacy for as long as golf had been played in America. The words of Hall Thompson, spoken just weeks before the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek near Birmingham, seemed to confirm the obvious. Yet when Thompson said that the host club he had founded did in fact discriminate on the basis of color, the ensuing uproar not only startled the game's officialdom, it also touched off a wave of reform.
The PGA Tour reacted immediately by requiring that all clubs hosting its tournaments integrate their memberships, and the USGA followed suit. Clubs that did not comply, most notably Cypress Point, Merion and Butler National, were taken off the tournament rota (chart, page G20). Augusta National, home of the Masters and a symbol for many of the Old South, admitted the first black member in its history just a month after the PGA was played.
Shoal Creek was described by some as the beginning of a genuine upheaval in U.S. golf, but on the eve of the 1995 PGA at Riviera, the true effects are still hard to measure. To see where minority golf has been and where it might be going, we sought out five veterans of the game's racial battlefield.
There is real joy in Eddie Payton's face as he talks about his unlikely life in golf. But there is also about him the wounded aspect of a survivor.
"Golf is the last bastion of white male superiority," says Payton evenly. "That's why there's been so much built-in resistance to minorities trying to excel in the sport." Five years after Shoal Creek, Payton maintains that "the system is still against us."
Payton was nine, two years older than his younger brother, Walter, when he first encountered the resistance in its most obvious form, as a caddie at the all-white Columbia (Miss.) Country Club. He believes he is still seeing it in a more subtle form as the golf coach for Jackson State University, which this year narrowly missed—by the vote of an NCAA selection committee—becoming the first Division I golf team from a historically black college to qualify for the NCAA championship.
Under Payton, Jackson State has gone from a ragtag unit that could barely field a golf team to one that has won the Southwestern Athletic Conference for seven straight years. A scratch golfer who harbors aspirations to someday compete on the Senior tour, the 5'8" Payton, 44, lasted six years in the NFL as a speedy punt and kickoff returner. He drives his Tigers nearly as hard as he drives himself.
"I've gotten consumed with the pursuit of our university becoming a golf power," admits Payton. "It's against all odds if you consider the kind of budgets and recruiting programs we are competing against, but I want to be part of history."
What's ironic is that in attempting to achieve a landmark in minority golf—and helping erode the tradition of white male superiority—Payton's best teams have been led by white golfers he recruited.