SPRINGFIELD, NJ—Last week’s PGA Championship featured discussion of a key topic that the leadership of the PGA of America attempted to handle with great care. Next year’s event will be staged in North Carolina—at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. The issue is not about the quality of the golf course. Quail Hollow has annually hosted a PGA Tour event for years with the Wells Fargo event and is a venue praised by many of the world’s top golfers.
What’s of concern is the recent passage of a bill—HB2—that has become law in the Tarheel State. Essentially, the law permits discrimination against members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender communities (LGBT). The North Carolina law, for example, would mandate that the usage of rest rooms can only be accessed by the original sex of that person at birth. Members of the LGBT community and their supporters have expressed outrage that a State would take such a clear hostile action against them in the 21st century.
The PGA of America opted to have its annual flagship event at Quail Hollow in 2010—years before the law was passed. What makes the matter more demanding for the Association is that the National Basketball Association (NBA) was planning to have its annual All-Star game played in Charlotte in 2017. The NBA decided to simply move the game out of protest from what North Carolina is doing. The NBA decided that while it may not be able to change the law directly, it can redirect its money-making efforts to locations that are clearly not against any particular group of people.
The leadership of the PGA has gone to great lengths to say clearly they as an organization are inclusive of all groups and want each to be welcomed and to take up golf as a lifelong recreation pastime. Preaching inclusiveness on one hand and having your marquee event in a State where the law says otherwise makes for a very difficult verbal tap dance through painful legal hair splitting.
At a press conference last week at Baltusrol, the leadership of the PGA stated that since Quail Hollow is a private facility it is not subject to the provisions of the law passed. And, the PGA stated that every and all steps will be taken to assure those from the LGBT community are welcomed and free to decide for themselves issues such as rest room usages.
But what the leadership of the PGA of America fails to realize is that no matter how inclusive they seek to be and how accommodating the situation is at Quail Hollow, the final major championship in 2017 will be played in a State that doesn’t recognize such situations as morally defensible. The NBA took a more a proactive role after thinking about what it would ultimately decide and released a statement on July 21 concerning its actions—the stance was unequivocally clear. “While we recognize that the NBA cannot choose the law in every city, state, and country in which we do business, we do not believe we can successfully host our All-Star festivities in Charlotte in the climate created by HB2.” Actions, in the minds of the NBA, do speak louder than just printed and verbal statements pledging inclusiveness.
The PGA of America now finds itself in the middle of a very tough predicament. When another major sports organization decides to bailout, the issue becomes why not equally follow in kind? The PGA’s stance is hanging on the narrowest of legal threads with the argument that a private facility like Quail Hollow is exempt from the law. What the PGA fails to realize is that simply having its marquee event in a State where such a law exists sends an even greater message on how sensitive the PGA truly is, simply by having the event hosted there at all. In simple terms, if the NBA exited—why isn’t the PGA doing likewise?
The sensitivity to exclusion is something the PGA should keep in mind because over a half a century ago—during the Presidency of John F. Kennedy—the leadership opted to strip a clause within its bylaws from 1934–1961 that prohibited African-Americans from becoming members of the association. Given the fact Jackie Robinson entered major league baseball back in 1947, the slowness of the PGA to respond to that issue makes one wonder why not simply look elsewhere for the ’17 PGA Championship and show a greater sensitivity given its past slowness in matters dealing with discrimination of specific groups.
Then again the PGA had a similar type situation back in 1990 when its flagship event was held at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, AL. Hall Thompson—the founder of Shoal Creek, explained the club’s admissions policy to a Birmingham Post-Herald reporter with these words: “I think we’ve said that we don’t discriminate in every other area except the blacks.”
Public outrage happened but the PGA opted to remain in Alabama. If such a similar situation happened now the echo chamber from social media and the rapid communications world we live today would likely have forced the hands of the PGA to go somewhere else. What’s especially telling is that the PGA has not entertained the thought in returning to Shoal Creek since.
When Quail Hollow does host the PGA Championship in 2017 one can only speculate if there will be protests in front of the gates of the club. In 2002, protests were held in Augusta, GA given the fact that the Augusta National Golf Club—home of The Masters—had historically only allowed men to become members. The protests in Augusta were not permitted to be near the club and a court later found the city had violated the groups First Amendment rights by placing them in an off-campus muddy field, fining the City of Augusta $120,000 for doing so.
To the credit of the PGA leadership, the strides made by the PGA Championship in the last 25 or so years to be a golf event of significant importance is clearly present. The field that competes is consistently atop all of the other major championships played. Quail Hollow will remain on schedule to host the PGA Championship in 2017 unless something of a major sort should arise. What’s amazing is that the PGA is celebrating its 100th anniversary of its founding this year. The major golf associations have all attempted to demonstrate a desire to be open to all and effectively grow the game. Earlier this year, the R&A effectively removed The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Muirfield from being able to stage a future Open Championship given the club membership’s vote in 2016 to remain a male-only golf facility. The uproar that followed has now pushed the club to reconsider its initial action and a likely second vote to overturn what was done is expected to happen before the end of this year.
What the State of North Carolina opted to do regarding HB2 can be changed as a law but when the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow is played next year it will only resurface these same questions when the focus should truly be on the players and the quality golf produced by them. Leaving North Carolina and going elsewhere would have certainly raised questions, but remaining in the Tar Heel State where discrimination is the law squeezes the PGA into a very tight corner.
Amazingly, the same PGA of America leadership had no issue to terminate immediately the presidency of Ted Bishop in late 2014 for comments he made via Twitter that were considered offensive to women in regards to a verbal joust Bishop had with professional golfer Ian Poulter. On that matter, the removal of Bishop by PGA leadership was swift and immediate and included the stripping of all benefits provided to past presidents of the association. One now has to wonder how an Association can act so quickly in a matter of internal verbal sexism but take a very different approach where its showcase event—the PGA Championship—is staged. This matter may be settled for the moment but it may well reignite as the event comes into focus in 2017.