Rough Spot For Nicklaus

August 07, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

The images from Shoal Creek had faded from memory:

The pickets and protests outside the Birmingham, Ala., golf club whose president, Hall Thompson, fiercely defended its right to a private, all-white membership.

The insensitive remarks from prominent members of the PGA Tour inside the press tent during the 1990 PGA Championship.

But those memories were stirred recently when one of the most celebrated and respected players in the game's history was asked why blacks had not made more of an impact at the highest levels of the sport. The reverberations from his remarks are starting to be felt.

In denying that racism had been much of a factor in the small number of successful black golfers, the normally media-savvy Jack Nicklaus put his golf shoes squarely in his mouth last month by saying, "Blacks have different muscles that react in different ways."

That remark, part of an interview Nicklaus did with a Vancouver, British Columbia, newspaper, was barely noticed at the time. A few days later, at the British Open in Scotland, Nicklaus was given the opportunity to explain himself and possibly to deny making such a statement.

"I said the kids today are gravitating to the sports that best fit their body and the environment where they're growing up," Nicklaus told a reporter from Sports Illustrated. "The white society to a large degree is becoming non-functional.

"They're spending time in cars, they're sitting behind desks, they're not out exercising, whereas the young black kid is in an environment where he is exercising. His muscles develop, and they develop to the degree of that type of sport. I think the opportunity is there for young black kids to play golf, just like the opportunity is there for young white kids to play basketball. But I don't think they're gravitating to the same level."

Until now, Nicklaus had maintained a good track record on race issues. Each of the three clubs in which Nicklaus has equity has had minorities among its founding members, dating to Muirfield Village outside Columbus, Ohio, in 1976 and, most recently, Winstone, outside Chicago, which Michael Jordan joined after being denied membership in some of the city's more established country clubs.

But Nicklaus' statements over the past few weeks will certainly raise the issue of how far golf has come since Shoal Creek -- a course he designed but does not have any vested interest in -- and how far it still must go.

And Nicklaus could find himself being asked about it once again this week in Tulsa, Okla., before the 1994 PGA Championship begins Thursday at Southern Hills Country Club.

For now, he is mostly quiet, hoping the issue fades.

"Right now he's a little frustrated about the way he's being positioned," said Andy O'Brien, a spokesman for Golden Bear, Inc., the Florida-based company that Nicklaus runs. "It's a very difficult issue to comment on and not get yourself in a lot of trouble."

Since the incidents at Shoal Creek, the PGA Tour and other major golf organizations have tried to become more active in promoting interest among minorities in a sport that has been among the most elitist and segregated. The PGA Tour started a minority summer internship program three years ago, placing college students throughout the industry.

The United States Golf Association has told clubs with exclusionary membership policies not to bother applying for any of its major championships.

"If you're giving people role models other than players, you will be able to generate interest on the grass-roots level," said John Morris, vice president for communications for the PGA Tour.

"Not everyone can play at the professional level. Clearly, minority groups are at a disadvantage in terms of access."

Lynnie Cook, executive director of the Baltimore Municipal Golf Corporation, which oversees Pine Ridge, Mount Pleasant, Clifton Park, Forest Park and Carroll Park public golf courses, said: "I think if I had to guess, out of our entire golfing population, no more than 15 to 20 percent would be African-American."

Those numbers drop significantly when moving from public courses to private clubs. Southern Hills, which had an exclusionary membership policy through the early 1980s, has only a handful of minority members. But its president says economics is the answer, not racism.

"We don't have many [minority] applicants, period," said John Gaberino, a Tulsa attorney who is president of the local chapter of the National Conference, an organization that has attempted to improve relations between diverse ethnic and religious groups. "Because of the admission fee [$45,000], there aren't that many people -- black or white -- who want to spend their money on joining a club."

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