SHOAL CREEK, ALABAMA | Ran into Lydia Ko yesterday. I had just finished a round at Shoal Creek and she’d just arrived.
“We were supposed to be here earlier but our flight was delayed so we drove over from Atlanta,” she said. “Well, she drove halfway” (she pointed at her sister, Sura) “and he drove the other half” (a thumb went up in the general direction of her caddie, Jonny Scott).
The Ko sisters spent Monday afternoon at Shoal Creek, looking over the site of this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. From there, Lydia was off to New York for an event at Shinnecock Hills and then to South Korea for Sura’s wedding. The sisters are incredibly close and a delight to be around. Tina, the girls’ mom, who hung out in the Shoal Creek clubhouse, will skip New York and take one of the two direct flights a day from Atlanta to Incheon.
We chatted for a moment. I congratulated Lydia on her recent victory at the LPGA Mediheal Championship outside San Francisco. Then she casually asked the most pertinent question of the day. “How was the golf course?”
Shoal Creek, nestled behind white gates and thick pines in the valley on the east side of Red Mountain just south of downtown Birmingham, was the baby of the late Hall W. Thompson, a Caterpillar tractor dealer who ran into a media buzzsaw and singlehandedly integrated private clubs throughout America by making racially insensitive remarks prior to the 1990 PGA Championship. Thompson atoned, making Louis J. Willie, president of the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co., a Shoal Creek member. Thompson later witnessed the admission of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a member as well. As a result of what was, by all accounts, an offhanded remark, Thompson transformed the game. The PGA Tour, USGA and PGA of America instituted policies whereby no events would be played on courses with discriminatory membership practices and, within months, Augusta National, where Thompson was a member, had two African-American members.
Controversy aside (and more than a quarter century later, it should be), the club, which opened in 1977, is a much different place. The membership is younger and more vibrant than before and the place, while still very private, has a more inviting feel.
The golf course is a treat. After some major renovation to the greens and bunkering, this might be Jack Nicklaus’ finest work: a playable, walking golf course that is challenging without being brutal, fun and fair but by no means a pushover. It is a perfect test. Bogeys are there for the taking but pars or better require a lot of precision and skill. At no point does the course repel good shots and you don’t feel as though you need crampons and a rope to get in and out of the bunkers.
When you finish, you’ve hit every club in your bag and your enjoyment level far exceeds the number on the scorecard.
There were some splotchy patches on Monday. The tournament is still three weeks away and Alabama, like most of the country, had a cold spring. The rough remained thin and low and there were bare spots in many areas that will be in play. But USGA agronomists, with a little help from the Almighty (no amount of irrigation equals the magic of an inch or two of rain), should have this Alabama gem ready to host quite a show the last full week of May.
By moving the U.S. Women’s Open up on the calendar, the USGA has opened the door to a wealth of great golf courses east of Arizona and south of Virginia. Shoal Creek, Country Club of Charleston (South Carolina), Champions Golf Club (Houston, Texas), Pine Needles (Southern Pines, North Carolina) should all be in perfect condition the first weekend in June. Throw the Olympic Club and Pebble Beach into the mix and the U.S. Women’s Open has a roster of venues on the horizon that should attract golf fans far and wide.
All those thoughts and more blitzed through my mind when Lydia asked her question. I could have told her about Lee Trevino winning the first major held at Shoal Creek (the 1984 PGA), or about Fred Couples and Payne Stewart ceding the 1990 PGA to Wayne Grady, or about The Tradition, a senior major, moving to the course for five years starting in 2011. I could have filled her in on some great local restaurants or on the time when Michael Jordan played minor-league baseball just over the hill in Hoover. So much info. So much history.
“Yeah, you’re really going to like it,” I said. “It sets up great for you. And it should be firm and fast.”
“Perfect,” Lydia said. “Can’t wait.”