ROUGH SPOT FOR NICKLAUS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Many clubs, including Shoal Creek, pride themselves on their right to private membership. And while the PGA Tour has never had any exclusionary policies during its 25-year history, there are many who say that the tour isn't far removed from its predecessor, the PGA of America, which for many years prevented blacks from playing regular tour events.

Since Charlie Sifford became the first black to play in a regular PGA event when he teed it up in the 1960 Greater Greensboro Open, only a few have followed. Of those, only Calvin Peete and, to a lesser extent, Morgan State alumnus Jim Thorpe have made much of an impact.

"There ain't no changes," said Sifford, 72, whose long struggle was recounted in a book, "Just Let Me Play." "Let's face it, if black kids had been given the same chance as white kids, you'd see a few more of us on the money list. Most blacks learn to play as caddies."

Now, with Peete's career slowed by injuries and Thorpe winding down before becoming eligible for the Senior Tour, there will likely be no other blacks on the regular tour until 18-year-old Tiger Woods, the California phenom, finishes college.

Rose Elder, whose former husband Lee in 1975 became the first black to play in the Masters, suggests that Nicklaus' statements are similar to those made in recent years by former baseball executive Al Campanis, whose infamous remarks on "Nightline" about blacks lacking the intelligence to run major-league teams, or Jimmy The Greek telling a Washington television station that black athletes were more likely to succeed because of certain anatomical advantages over whites.

Similar, and possibly more inflammatory considering Nicklaus' stature as not only a champion of his sport, but also a spokesman for it. Unlike the cause celebre that followed Campanis' and The Greek's remarks -- both were fired for making them -- the reaction to the statements made by Nicklaus has ranged from barely any to none at all.

Tim Finchem, the tour's new commissioner, has not commented and, according to Morris, "Nor do we intend to."

O'Brien, the spokesman for Golden Bear, said: "There hasn't been any reaction yet. I thought we would have heard a lot more, but I think it's because people understand Jack. I think he's more frustrated that one writer didn't examine Jack's full role. I think he's pretty proud of the access he's provided people to the game."

O'Brien mentions annual donations Nicklaus has made to the Calvin Peete Foundation, the establishment of the Evans caddie-scholarship program at Nicklaus' PGA Tour stop, The Memorial, as well as the "Chi Chi and The Bear" exhibition Nicklaus does with fellow senior Chi Chi Rodriguez that benefits the underprivileged.

Rose Elder, who has provided grants and internships to black students through a golf tournament and scholarship fund for nearly a quarter-century, said she doesn't think the PGA Tour or any other major golf organization has done enough to provide opportunities that lead to positions in the industry.

"They spend $5,000 to $10,000 to take 300 kids out in a field and let them swing clubs?" said Elder, who has managed athletes for more than 20 years and is training minorities for careers in sports marketing and administration.

"What good is that going to do? They might feel like they're doing something worthwhile. Give me a break."

Elder has one question for Nicklaus, as well.

"I want to know what he means by blacks having different muscles," she said. "That's a racist remark. I've heard similar things from people whom I considered ignorant. What scares me is that I don't think of Jack Nicklaus as being ignorant."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°