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
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
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.
August 13, 1995
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
It's a twist for which Payton has been heavily criticized. His
detractors, many of them black, accuse him of paying lip service
to the development of minority talent while in reality stifling
it by using scholarships for white golfers purely in the
interests of winning. Payton counters by saying that having a
successful program is the only way to draw the best minority
golfers and, just as important, the funds necessary to build a
"We try to recruit the best minority golfers available," says
Payton, whose squad this year was made up of four whites and
five blacks. "But first of all, the talent pool of young black
golfers who have the ability to succeed at the college level is
still very shallow. And secondly, it's a fact that the best
minority golfers aren't making Jackson State their first choice.
The only way they will in the future is if we can become a
legitimate power, and right now we need white players to do that."
As a boy, Payton avidly took to the game, swatting balls with a
lefthanded five-iron turned toe down, but he hit shots at
Columbia only late in the evenings on the hole farthest from the
clubhouse, where he couldn't be seen. "It was just understood
that I could never play the course," he says. "My brother Walter
has never been allowed or invited to play 18 holes at the
Columbia Country Club. That has hurt because you always want to
be accepted at home. But if you let things like that bother you,
you get stuck, and you can't make a difference."
Payton believes a major difference must be made in the way the
golf industry supports and fosters young minority talent. It's
an issue that he believes has not been adequately addressed in
all the fallout from Shoal Creek.
"If Shoal Creek had truly had an effect," says Payton, "you
would see more money from the industry being put into the
inner-city programs, and more emphasis in assisting some of the
good minority players to get on--and stay on--some of the tours.
There have been a lot of young black players with talent who
simply couldn't afford to play. Most of them get discouraged and
leave the game. Each time, it's one less player who can't go
back to the junior programs as a professional to tell young
blacks that they can make it. It's a cycle that most of the golf
industry hasn't cared much about."
Or one, in Payton's view, that the last bastion of white
superiority doesn't want to see end at all.
By nature, John Merchant abhors a communication vacuum.
The first African-American to serve on the United States Golf
Association executive committee craves the consensus gained when
people from diverse backgrounds find solutions in a common
cause. As an agent of synergy, Merchant is smooth: His lanky
frame and easy smile disarm; his slow intonations calm. The end
result can be a clinic in the art of the possible.
Merchant developed the knack growing up in a middle-class
Italian section of otherwise affluent Greenwich, Conn. "I had to
learn to get along with people," says the 62-year-old attorney,
who serves as the consumer counsel for the state of Connecticut.
"Later on--through school, the military and the law--most of the
people I was around were white, so I learned to get along with
them. Anything I've ever accomplished in life has involved
Merchant's people skills and vision of racial harmony have made
him golf's ultimate assimilator. After Shoal Creek prompted his
historic USGA appointment in 1992, Merchant seized the
opportunity to become founder and point man of the Golf
Symposium, an annual, invitation-only meeting in which industry
movers and shakers are brought together with members of the
black community in an ongoing effort to make golf more inclusive.
"I've found that if you bring people together around a shared
interest," says Merchant, "sooner or later they will function
together productively. Blacks and whites will find that they are
more alike than they are different."
It's a bias built on Merchant's own experience. After being
introduced to the game in the Navy while stationed at Pearl
Harbor, Merchant became an avid player with a single-digit
handicap in the early '60s. Over the years Merchant formed a
friendship with Giles Payne, a fellow lawyer who had close ties
to the USGA. After Shoal Creek, Payne and former USGA president
Sandy Tatum were talking about the idea of nominating a black to
the executive board, and Payne suggested Merchant. Within a
year, Merchant was wearing a blue blazer. Almost overnight, he
had be come the most influential African-American in golf.
"Shoal Creek made it possible to infiltrate the system, because
it raised the issue of minority participation in a national
sense," Merchant says. "When institutions like the USGA
responded, I believe it opened the door for real change."
Surprisingly, Merchant believes that the importance of the issue
that spawned the controversy, the integration of country clubs,
has been largely misunderstood.
"Even if every country club in the nation actively went out to
recruit black members, most of them still wouldn't be
integrated, simply because of economics," says Merchant, who in
1992 became the first black to join the exclusive Country Club
of Fairfield in Fairfield, Conn. "The larger issue is a social
one. You can't get into a country club until you start hanging
around people who belong to country clubs."
Merchant knows that his ideas may seem naive in the face of
American golf's legacy of institutionalized racism, but he
stubbornly clings to a fundamental belief.
"My own life tells me that when people can put aside distrust
and bitterness, they almost can't help doing good," says
Merchant. "The hard part is getting them together. But golf's a
great unifier, and I'm pretty good at it, too."
It is Bill Wright's nature to carefully weigh pros and cons in
the world of ideas. At the same time that he was winning the
1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links, becoming in the process the
first black golfer to win a national title in this country, he
was working toward a degree in education. Even while he was
playing on the PGA Tour in fits and starts in the '60s and '70s,
he was teaching sixth grade in Los Angeles. And today, at the
age of 59, he is teaching golf at a public course, The Lakes at
El Segundo, just a few miles south of Los Angeles International
Wright has been disheartened to find almost no opportunities to
pass on what he knows to those he believes could benefit the
most. "The black neighborhood is right near here, but it's
really worlds away," Wright says, pointing toward Inglewood
over a net enclosing the east end of the driving range. "All
sports are silly when you're thinking about survival, but
unfortunately, to most black kids golf is especially silly."
That's a reality that shades his feelings about the lasting
significance of Shoal Creek. "Shoal Creek rang a bell, but it
hasn't been answered the way we hoped it might be," Wright says.
"Basically, the PGA of America got put in a box and did what was
necessary to get out of it. But as far as the issue of fairness
toward minorities, as far as the leadership taking a moral stand
and saying, 'Yes, I guess you're right'--they haven't gotten to
What early prejudice Wright encountered, he overcame. In
Seattle, where he grew up, the men's clubs at public courses,
like many throughout the country at the time, did not allow
blacks or Asians, and Wright had to join a club in Portland in
order to establish a handicap. Undeterred, he qualified for the
Public Links at Wellshire Golf Course in Denver and, with
exceptional length and putting touch, was never behind in any of
his six matches. It marked the first time a black had won a USGA
event, a feat that has since been matched by 1982 Senior Ama
teur champion Alton Duhon and by Tiger Woods, who has won four
Wright was bursting to get out on the Tour, but it took him
three years of teaching full time to save enough money to try.
By the time he did, the extended period away from competition
had taken the edge off his game.
With the perspective of time, Wright has come to believe he
lacked the single-minded drive necessary for a black man to make
it in pro golf at the time.
"No matter what happened, I always loved golf and I enjoy
sharing that," he says. "I still feel like the game is where I
There are three American flags standing on the first tee of the
Clearview Golf Club, a bucolic 18-hole facility amid the
farmland of East Canton, Ohio, which Bill Powell built, operates
The trio of flags makes an easy symbol of the 78-year-old
Powell's earthly personal trinity: country, golf and family, the
last of which is reflected in the fact that his wife of 55
years, Marcella; son Larry, the course superintendent; and
daughter Renee, the former LPGA player and new head pro, all
work with him at Clearview.
That the triangle is complete is a testament to Powell's sweet
nature and endurance, because he has had plenty of reasons to
mistrust both country and golf. Powell is a World War II veteran
who came home from the invasion of Normandy to find he couldn't
get a GI loan. He's a lifelong golfer who for years was barred
from the public courses around his birthplace because of his
color. He's a club profession al of 49 years who couldn't
qualify for membership in the PGA of America until its
Caucasian-only clause was dropped in 1961.
The defining act of Powell's life occurred a few months after he
had returned from the war. While overseas, he had played in
England and Scotland and been struck by how truly public golf
could be. So when it was made clear to him one day that he was
not wanted at a public course in Canton, "I thought," he
remembers, "I'm going to build my own golf course."
After borrowing the money for his one-third share, Powell in
1946 joined two black friends to buy a 78-acre abandoned dairy
farm. After moving his family into a farmhouse that doubled as
the pro shop, Powell spent two years clearing the land, laying
out the original nine holes and planting grass and trees, all
the while holding down a 40-hour-a-week job as a security guard.
Ten years later Powell had earned enough to buy out his
partners, and in the early 1960s built a second nine.
Today Clearview is a sporty par 69 with a gravel road entrance
and a meadowland full of dogwoods and wild crab apple trees. In
certain parts of the mostly white community, it was referred to
as "the nigger nine," and vandals constantly stole the
flagsticks from the greens.
When it comes to blacks in golf, Bill Powell is not wildly
optimistic about the future.
"Shoal Creek was superfluous because there are still Shoal
Creeks all over the country, and the same kinds of attitudes
persist," he says. "That's what worries me. Black people have
been paying dues in golf for so long, and still they aren't
accepted. Golf might be a game that grabs ahold of you, but
people aren't as apt to wait for things as long these days.
After a while, you figure they are just going to say, Why try?"
Though he is the only African-American player left on the PGA
Tour, Jim Thorpe is remarkably optimistic about the future of
"Shoal Creek opened a lot of minds, and a lot of doors," says
Thorpe, 46. "I think the world is eager to see young black
players. I won a couple of tournaments and didn't see another
black face except for the caddies. But whenever Tiger Woods
shows up, there's a whole bunch of black folks in the gallery.
That's a great sign."
But Thorpe concedes that the conditions for developing black
players have actually worsened since the time, in 1979, when he
was just one of only six African-American professionals playing
"We need to get together as a race," he says. "There is no
reason there shouldn't be black corporate sponsors, black
country clubs, black teaching camps. We can't wait for the white
world to do it. We should follow the example of the Jewish
people, who built their own clubs."
It's natural for Thorpe to think in terms of self-sufficiency.
He is an entirely self-taught player. It's also seemingly
natural for him to see hope rather than despair.
Thorpe's father, Elbert, who died last fall at the age of 83,
was the greens superintendent at the Roxboro Golf Club in rural
North Carolina. According to Thorpe, after he and his brothers
had helped their father with his duties, they usually had no
problems playing as much as they desired.
Thorpe won a football scholarship to Morgan State, where he was
a 230-pound running back. But when his older brother Chuck
played his way onto the Tour in 1972, Thorpe had an epiphany.
"Something sort of woke up in me and said, 'This is it,'" he
said. "I just got very determined to do whatever it took to make
it in golf."
Thorpe set out on a journey of mini-tours, high-stakes games
against the best black players at urban public courses, and when
there was a need for cash, out-and-out hustling. "I got good at
finding that one weak guy in the group, the guy who talked a
lot, had some money and thought he could play but couldn't,"
says Thorpe. "You could start out playing a $5 Nassau and by the
end of the day see $10,000 change hands."
Through a relentless program of testing his game against players
who were better than he was, Thorpe graduated a level at a time
until, in 1976, he found himself on the PGA Tour. His best year
came in 1985, when he won two tournaments and finished fourth on
the money list.
"When I stop playing, I want to teach and promote junior golf in
the inner city and run a school that develops some solid black
players," he says. "Somebody will definitely follow me, but I
want to make sure that a lot of somebodies will follow Tiger."
"Shoal Creek made it possible to infiltrate the system."
"We can't wait for the white world to do it."