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 small minds.
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 rendition.