Lifestyle

The Changing Face of Private Clubs


Ten years ago, two figures loomed large in the Shoal Creek golf club race-relations debacle that brought corporate advertising to a halt at one of golf's four major championships. One man was Hall Thompson, the white founder of Shoal Creek, and the other was Louis J. Willie, a leading black citizen in Birmingham, Ala.

Thompson initiated the crisis in June 1990 when he said his club would not be pressured into accepting "the blacks." Willie, now 76, made peace when he integrated the club, permitting the 1990 PGA Championship to go forward.

"'OK, I'll do it,' is what I said," recalls Willie, who at the time was president of the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company and a lapsed golfer. The deal was struck at a friend's funeral, and initially Willie's wife was against it. "I didn't want him to become another 'first,'" Yvonne Willie says today. "We had been through enough firsts. But my son put his arms around me and said, 'Mom, we have to support Dad in this.' We didn't know what would happen from the black or the white community. We didn't know if he would lose policy holders. I just wanted a quiet life. And here come these telephone calls from 7 a.m. to midnight for two weeks." Louis Willie chuckles remembering those heady days. Now the Thompsons and the Willies are friends.

The crisis proved to be a turning point, dramatically altering golf's landscape for African-American players, for private country clubs and for golf's leading organizations. More recently, the emergence of Tiger Woods has brought larger black involvement in the game and in the industry. The First Tee, a golf-industry program designed for children who otherwise would not have access to golf, is up and running with 22 golf facilities open and an additional 24 scheduled to open this fall. And although African-American golfers have nearly doubled to 882,000 since 1991, that number still represents only 3 to 4 percent of all American golfers. (Black Americans, by contrast, account for 13 percent of the country's population.)

"I don't know any black person who says, 'I want to get into a country club, and I can't find one club that will let me in.' "

-- Darwin Davis

For those black executives who can afford memberships, the change at the country-club gates appears to have been profound and positive: Many more have access to private clubs than ever before. Some have membership in two or three clubs, just like their white counterparts. Their golf lives have changed for the better. And they may now entertain clients in a way not afforded them before. So business is better as well.

"We have made significant progress. But we have made monumental progress compared to where we came from," says Darwin Davis, who at 68 recently retired as senior vice president of Equitable Life in New York. Ten years ago, Davis told Golf Digest: "I've worked hard, and that's the American way. But one's efforts should bring rewards. My family ought to have the same opportunities as white families.

I make enough money to do it; I'm a gentleman, a family man. I love golf. There is nothing about me except the color of my skin that keeps me from a club."

Today, he says: "I don't know any black person who says, 'I want to get into a country club, and I can't find one club that will let me in.' "

Davis is now one of about a dozen black members of St. Andrew's Golf Club in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., the oldest club in America. When he joined in 1990, he was the second black executive to achieve membership. There are roughly 60 black members at the Detroit Golf Club, which in 1990 had barely integrated, and 18 to 20 at the Golf Club of Georgia. Most of the nation's 4,285 private clubs have far fewer minority members than that, but the overall numbers have increased.

Club life has meant a lot to Davis and to his family, particularly his children. They are learning a love of the game and its values, as if by osmosis. As Davis says: "It's music to my ears when my boy says, 'Hey, Dad, let us help you use your food minimum.' "

In 1990, and for decades before, everyone in golf knew about the exclusionary practices at country clubs, but no one did much about it. Shoal Creek didn't think it had a problem. The PGA had held the same tournament at Shoal Creek in 1984, when Lee Trevino walked away with the top prize. The only difference in 1990 was that a local Birmingham reporter asked Thompson his views about race, and Thompson answered. Thompson still remains involved in Shoal Creek, is managing his real-estate company and spends some time at his farm. The quote of his that caught on with the media was a simple statement of the truth as it applied to a vast number of country clubs both in the South and in the North. He said that his club, being private, was like "a home" and that he wouldn't be "pressured" into admitting blacks. Once that appeared in the press, sparks flew.

Although Thompson says he "rarely speaks with reporters," in a letter to Golf Digest he describes Willie as "a most welcome and valued member of Shoal Creek."

Back in 1990, black organizations threatened to picket at the club gate. Corporate sponsors for the PGA Championship--IBM, Honda, Toyota and Lincoln-Mercury--quickly pulled more than $2 million worth of ads from ABC and ESPN. Corporate America feared the obvious economic fallout if consumers boycotted their products because they had sponsored an event at a club that openly practiced racial exclusion.

On July 31, 1990, with the tournament a mere nine days away, an agreement was reached by the PGA of America, Shoal Creek and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to integrate the club. Golf's leading organizations also agreed to change their policies regarding tournament sites--from this point on, admission policies would be scrutinized.

Willie had been given an honorary membership that enabled the club to waive his $30,000 initiation fee. Some black executives thought that was patronizing. In the years that followed, Willie took lessons, he often played with a racially mixed foursome, he invited his son and his friends to play.

In 1996 a second black golfer was admitted: Ron Edwards, 42, an advertising executive from Birmingham. He came in as a full-paying equity member, knowing many members of the club already from business contacts. "I feel very comfortable there," he says. His attorney sponsored him for membership. He says many of his friends have fared well in country clubs, but at the same time, he believes there are still clubs that don't accept blacks. "I believe that in every city you can find a black member if you want one," he says. "They are there. You have to want them."

Willie says Shoal Creek wants to admit more blacks. "But it's not something all folks are dying to get to. The cost is high, and blacks have found they can play at public or resort courses more cheaply."

Around the country, an inquiry shows that scores of elite private clubs in the nation have admitted black males as members. Our interviewees tell us that when clubs admit minority members they do so with few problems. Some of the nation's most elite private clubs have now accepted black men and their families: Augusta National; The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.; Baltusrol in New Jersey; Winged Foot and Shinnecock in New York; Los Angeles Country Club; Oakland Hills in Michigan; Olympia Fields in Chicago; and East Lake, a corporate club in Atlanta, to name a few.

In the immediate aftermath of Shoal Creek, wealthy black executives were actively recruited. Within months, most clubs with tournaments had found a black male to integrate the club. (A few, such as Cypress Point and Butler National, an all-male club, were dropped by the PGA Tour when they did not comply.) David B. Fay, executive director of the USGA, says initially there was a "Noah's ark" mentality: "Get one of each, or two of each," he says. "But I get a sense now that once clubs start to open up, there is no downside to it. You have members coming in, they have friends, they would like to introduce those friends to the clubs. I think the better side of human beings seems to be coming out with respect to getting African-American members."

Dr. Robert Sims, who practices occupational medicine, grew up a few minutes from the Detroit Golf Club, in a city where three-fourths of the population is black. In his youth there were no black members at the club, he said. (The first was accepted in 1986.) Today there are 60 blacks among the 800-strong membership: doctors, dentists, businessmen, lawyers, judges, and the mayor.

"I think the culture of America is changing," says Dr. Sims. "It is becoming more accepting. The club has an African-American on the board of directors now." Still, there are moments when he senses his race makes a difference, though it's hard to express just how. "It is true that if you are a member of the club, you get all the privileges. But sometimes those privileges are not given with all good grace. You still feel the tension there at times. It is getting better, and if you're a good golfer it really helps."

James H. Lowry, 61, is the president and CEO of Lowry Associates in Chicago, a company that designs diversity programs for Fortune 500 companies. Like many executives, he sat on many charity boards and socialized with white executives, yet for years could not get into a private country club. Now Lowry, who integrated the University Club in Chicago years ago, is a member of Medinah, which also has Michael Jordan and three other African-American members.

A football, baseball and basketball player in college, Lowry started playing golf about 18 years ago. His wife plays as well. He lives about 45 minutes from Medinah and loves the club. "So do my clients," he says, adding that if he invites someone to join his foursome at Medinah, as opposed to a foursome at another club, "I get a quick response."

Soon after Shoal Creek, Lowry says, one of his friends asked why he didn't join one of the more prestigious clubs. "I said it wasn't that easy; you have to be asked. A couple of my buddies recommended me to a club. I won't mention the name, but I didn't get in." One day, he received a call from a friend who was seeking to recruit someone else, but the recruited person wasn't interested. "I took this as a signal, and indicated I was available," Lowry says. "And I found people to help back me and get behind the Medinah invitation."

Admission of blacks at country clubs is a major change, Lowry says. "But once you crack it, you don't think anything about it anymore," he says. "They see me, they see my wife. We don't make any waves. We are members, just like they are."

Nathaniel Goldston, chairman of Gourmet Services Inc., the largest African-American-owned food-service company in the nation, said he was invited to join the Golf Club of Georgia in 1991, the year it was founded by Japanese executives. "The acceptance is now common," says Goldston, a golfer since childhood who also played high school and college golf. "It began to open up right after Shoal Creek. When I showed an interest in the Golf Club of Georgia, the member came to my office. He sat down and told me everything I needed to do, and he said if I didn't know people he would get me a sponsor. People just opened up their eyes."

Goldston's wife, Valerie, loves golf, too, and she and a group of black women golfers, a group they call "The Divot Divas," go on trips and play at clubs all around Atlanta and the country.

"You will find the conditions in the South are much better than the little hidden ambiguities they have up there in the North. Down here it is wide open," Nathaniel Goldston says.

In San Francisco, Roy Clay, owner and president of ROD-L Electronics Inc. in Menlo Park, was the first black member to be invited to join the Olympic Club, in 1988, two years before Shoal Creek. He is also a member of the all-male Plantation Club in Palm Springs, Calif. (as is Michael Jordan). Recently, Clay sponsored baseball hall of famer Willie Mays as a special member at Olympic.

Now 70 years old, Clay was reared in the segregated society of St. Louis and was one of the first blacks to attend St. Louis University. "Forty years ago I didn't know what golf was," he says. "I had relatives who worked at country clubs. An African-American couldn't go in there except to work."

Clay has three grown sons. "They were reared in Palo Alto, so they tend to think that everything is equal until they occasionally experience it otherwise," he says. "Then they view it as an incident that is isolated; I look at it and I think it is something that is racially motivated--that always comes to mind."

Is it getting better? "Yes. But it is not there yet."

Not all African-Americans who can afford a club and who play golf well belong to a private club. Ron Homer, 52, the CEO of Access Capital Strategies in Boston, has a 10-handicap. An avid golfer, he is not a member of a club, though he has been asked to join. Mostly he plays at resort courses. (The recent growth of well-appointed daily-fee golf courses throughout the country, especially in the East, gives nonmembers an alternative way of entertaining clients.)

"I think for African-Americans, now it is not a question of access, it is a question of numbers," says Homer. "It's just like major American corporations. There is no question that African-Americans can do quite well in major corporations, but it still can be a lonely existence, because you're still not likely to see more than one or two over a certain level. If you're at all conscious about race and feel you want to be with folks who have the same cultural experience, it is just not as easy."

Pressure for Change

Pressure for change in country-club practices came from other quarters as well: from negative publicity, typically anathema to club life; from the adoption of new laws in some states that made the words "public accommodation" a part of the lexicon of private-club life; from lawsuits; and from private golf club associations themselves.

Jay Mottola, the executive director of the Metropolitan Golf Association, which oversees private and public clubs in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, says the twin issues of race and gender have been topics openly discussed at meetings.

"We can't dictate to our member clubs," Mottola says, "but I think our position is pretty simple: The faster they address and get any discrimination issues behind them, the better off they will be individually and the better off all clubs will be. Generally, the clubs in the metropolitan area have responded pretty well. There are exceptions."

Often those exceptions are well-known but out-of-the-way clubs, the club up the road, the ones that are as homogeneous as they were a decade ago. Sometimes their policies are based on prejudice. Some clubs claim they just don't like to be dictated to by outsiders. And some clubs say they have no black members because there are few black golfers in their area. Clubs have a massive sense of reluctance to discuss the issue, but folks familiar with club life describe integration at the typical club as "patchy" at best.

Those who have a deep knowledge of club life are the executive directors of regional golf associations in the United States. Many told Golf Digest that change had come to private clubs in the last 10 years, and that while data wasn't kept, they see and sense a greater racial and ethnic diversity in club memberships today.

The South seems to have made great strides. Mike Waldron at the Georgia State Golf Association, says: "In the metropolitan Atlanta area we probably have as wide a range of racial makeup at clubs as any city in the country." David Norman of the Virginia State Golf Association, which represents 110 private country clubs, says he has seen a growth of golf among minorities and that has translated into more minorities playing at public, military and private courses. Many more black career professionals, he says, are taking up the game for business purposes.

As for golf's major organizations, all are requiring their tournament sites to accept change.

Jim Awtrey, the CEO of the PGA of America, was on the front lines 10 years ago. "What Shoal Creek caused was not just a reflection about country clubs but an inquiry into every part of golf," he says today. "We asked what our diversity policies were, what our attitudes were. We began to ask how we do our business.

"If you looked around and didn't see people of color, you began to say, 'Why? Is it because we haven't paid attention? Is it because nobody has applied?' All of those questions came up, and to me that was a healthy awakening for our industry."

The PGA didn't exactly get off to a great start in the race-relations business. It was an organization for white pro golfers only, being dragged into allowing black players to compete in its tournaments as late as 1961, the last of our major sports to open its doors to players of color. But it's getting there: In 1997, it hired a director of diversity.

Adhering to principles

All of golf's major organizations now make it part of their contractual arrangements that clubs serving as their tournament sites adhere to anti-discrimination principles. Before Shoal Creek, the PGA Tour, which sponsors the largest number of professional events, had permitted the sponsoring organization to select the site. That changed, says Edward L. Moorhouse, the tour's chief legal officer: "We have a provision with the tournament organization that the venue they contract with does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin. It lets us terminate the agreement without any liability if we ever find that that representation is not accurate."

Shoal Creek appears to have had an even more dramatic impact on the USGA, most recently in the area of gender. David Fay says he is pressing to try to determine the actual practices of club membership before that club gets to host a USGA tournament. "Rarely do you see a club with a stated policy; perhaps the all-male clubs are the only ones," says Fay. "It's the practices, not the written policies, that you have to go after."

And how are things back at Shoal Creek? Louis Willie plays less now as a result of an automobile accident. But he has some wonderful memories. One is symbolized by a trophy given to him by his son on the day he had a hole-in-one on the 13th hole. The date, Oct. 7, 1995, is engraved on the trophy.

One of the first things he did after the event was to make a telephone call. "I called Hall Thompson," he says. "I was pretty happy about it all. And you know what Thompson said? He said, 'Hey, I've never made one myself.' "

Marcia Chambers


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