Hall Thompson, country club founder whose policy inspired golf to address discrimination

By Bill Pennington
New York Times / November 1, 2010

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NEW YORK — Hall Thompson, who sparked a nationwide controversy 20 years ago when he said that the country club he founded would not be pressured into admitting black members, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Officials at the Shoal Creek Country Club in Alabama confirmed his death.

Two months before the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek and six years after the club hosted the 1984 PGA, Mr. Thompson responded to a question from a reporter for The Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald about Shoal Creek’s membership, which included Jews and women, by saying, “We don’t discriminate in every other area except blacks.’’

The comment set off protests in Alabama that had a ripple effect nationally. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference threatened to picket the championship, and several corporate sponsors of the tournament, including IBM, pulled more than $2 million in commercial advertising from its television broadcast.

Mr. Thompson insisted he was misquoted, but he apologized. Within weeks the club accepted a black businessman, Louis Willie Jr., as an honorary member. Other black members have joined the club since then, including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Although the 1990 PGA Tournament was held without significant incident, the words Shoal Creek became symbolic in the golf community, identifying not just a place but also a moment that shed light on decades of exclusionary practices by private country clubs in America.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1990 PGA Championship, the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, and the US Golf Association adopted policies prohibiting discriminatory clubs from acting as hosts of their tournaments.

Soon afterward, Tom Watson, the eight-time major championship winner, resigned from the Kansas City Country Club because it refused membership to a Jewish businessman. Other well-known golfers and public figures took similar steps.

That year, David B. Fay, executive director of the US Golf Association, told The New York Times: “I find it highly unlikely that you will see any championships held at all-white clubs anymore. The change is inevitable. Sports has often been an instrument of social change. This is another example.’’

Two years ago, the US Golf Association played its national junior amateur championship at Shoal Creek. The PGA plans to return to the club next year with a senior tour event.

In a statement Wednesday, Shoal Creek officials said Mr. Thompson continued to play a major role at the club until his death.

Mr. Thompson was a prominent Alabama businessman who in 1957 founded the Thompson Tractor Co., which became successful selling and servicing heavy equipment.

He built Shoal Creek in a suburb of Birmingham, where he was widely known for his charitable contributions.

“I would like others to remember that Dad had a deep respect of people in every walk of life,’’ Mr. Thompson’s son Michael told The Birmingham News Wednesday.

Mr. Thompson leaves his wife of 66 years, Lucille; a sister, Elizabeth Hobbs; two daughters, Judith Thompson and Lisa Smith; two other sons, Hall Jr. and George; and eight grandchildren.