In the summer of 1992 after graduating from Tennessee State University, where he was a member of the golf team, Sam Puryear was an intern in the PGA Tour Minority Internship program. For his internship, Puryear worked at Golf Digest, where he wrote an article titled Shoal Creek Revisited. In the piece he told the story of Hall Thompson, the founder of Shoal Creek, a private Birmingham, Alabama, country club, who told a local reporter in 1990 that membership to his club “won’t discriminate in every other area except the blacks.”
Thompson’s comments to the local reporter set off a national controversy that would have reverberations across the game, particularly at elite private golf clubs. Facing the prospect of losing the 1990 PGA Championship, which it had hosted in 1984, Thompson and Shoal Creek relented and made Louis J. Willie, a Black Birmingham businessman, an honorary member. Other famous clubs followed suit. That same year the Augusta National Golf Club invited its first Black member, Ron Townsend, a media executive. The PGA Tour said that it wouldn’t hold tournaments at clubs that discriminated on the basis of race, religion or national origin.
For his Golf Digest story, Puryear had a telephone interview with Thompson, who said that he had been misquoted by the Birmingham reporter. Fifteen years later in 2007, Puryear, by then the men’s golf coach at Michigan State, met Thompson in person when he took his team to a college tournament at Shoal Creek.
Puryear was back at the club this week for the PGA Works Collegiate Championship, where his Howard University men’s team won the Division I championship on Wednesday by 57 shots over North Carolina A&T with a 25-under-par total of 835 for 54 holes. Everett Whiten Jr., a third-year player from Chesapeake, Virginia, led the Bison with a final-round eight-under par 64 to take the individual championship.
With their second straight PGA Works title, Howard is in a class all by itself among programs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), but that’s not the ultimate goal for Puryear, who is in his third year as the program’s director of golf after coaching at Michigan State and Queens University of Charlotte.
“Our goal is to make the NCAA regionals and compete for the national championship,” he said. “I think we can become a good mid-major program that competes regularly against top-ranked schools.”
When Puryear last played in the PGA Works Championship in 1992 it was held in Cleveland at the Highland Park Golf Course and run largely by a network of Black golf enthusiasts and HBCU coaches. Ripples from Shoal Creek had led the PGA Tour to form a minority internship program that year to introduce talented college students from diverse programs to the industry. I came through the program a few years later, and there are many other African Americans like Puryear and me who owe the start of their careers in the golf industry to a spark ignited by Shoal Creek.
“In some respects Shoal Creek served as a black eye to golf and it made some people look in the mirror and say we have to do better as an institution,” Puryear said. “But I think its greatest impact has been on elite private clubs and acceptance of African Americans to their memberships. I don’t think it really impacted getting more minorities into golf.”
Growing up poor in a Birmingham housing project, Keith Holmes never imagined becoming a Shoal Creek member. “The front gates of Shoal Creek were 20 miles from my house,” said Holmes, 55, who recently retired from ADT, where he was the chief revenue officer. “But I might as well have been on another planet.”
A former cornerback on Georgia Tech’s 1990 national championship team, Holmes is a part of a generation of Black business leaders, executives and pro athletes who have broken into memberships at elite private golf clubs since the Shoal Creek controversy. These men and women represent a tiny percentage of the memberships at these clubs, but they represent a powerful symbolic presence at these former lily-white bastions of the game.
Recently at the Masters, the sight of several Black members of Augusta National Golf Club in their green jackets was as much a statement about how far African Americans have come in the business world and boardrooms as it was about their presence at this mecca of golf. Seeing Virgis Colbert presiding over the 10th tee during the Masters harkened memories for me of reading in Jet magazine as a teenager about his career at the Miller Brewing Company. There was Ken Chenault, who rose through the ranks at American Express to become its chairman and CEO. Tall and rail thin, Christopher J. Williams, a Wall Street veteran with his own firm, had an almost regal bearing as he carried out his member duties on the first tee. When I saw Lynn Swann gliding through the throng of patrons, I considered the hard work it took for him to succeed in other pursuits after a career as a Hall of Fame wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Since 2020, Holmes has been a member at Shoal Creek. During PGA Works, he got to experience the special quality of belonging to a place that helped prompt closed gates to open all over the country. On Saturday there were hundreds of minority kids at the club for an event that included the Miles College drumline.
“Shoal Creek has never seen that many people that look like us and it’s never been that loud before,” said Holmes. “The kids got a chance to see a place where for so many years the only Black people who saw it worked in the kitchen.”
As a Birmingham native, Holmes is aware of the history of the city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, and Shoal Creek remains a very special place for him.
“This is a full-circle moment for me,” he said. “It’s heartwarming. To see the folks at Shoal Creek open their doors to diversity when it was closed for so long is a story of redemption and forgiveness. For me personally to have been able to join the club is just one of those things that you aspire to. It was the other side of the world and you never think those things are going to happen when you’re a kid, but here I am.”