Fred Couples is a couple of decades older since finishing second in the last major tournament at Shoal Creek, and he has the aching back to prove it.
But Couples is happily here anyway for the Champions Tour’s Regions Tradition at the scenic course that hosted two PGA Championships a couple of decades ago before controversy erupted over its all-white membership – and the founder’s comments that the club wouldn’t be pressured into accepting blacks.
The Tradition, the first of five Champions Tour majors, opens Thursday.
”This is a great, great golf course,” Couples, who tied for 15th at the Masters while fighting persistent back problems, said Wednesday. ”For the Champions Tour, I believe this is going to be one of the best events.”
For the players and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, the past issues seem to be buried about as deep as the Bermuda rough that plagued participants in the 1984 and 1990 PGA Championships.
Finchem called the 7,234-yard, par-72 course, which is nestled between the lush Oak and Double Oak mountains, ”by all estimates a significant, supreme test” and ”famous around the world.”
But outside of golf circles, at least, it became known in 1990 for founder Hall Thompson’s remarks on black members just before the PGA Championship. Thompson, who later apologized, died in October.
The 600-member club now has a handful of black members, including former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a Birmingham native and honorary chair of the tournament.
”We certainly have no hesitation of playing here and haven’t had for a number of years,” Finchem said. ”Actually, the last five or 10 years we’ve had a couple of, I would call them robust conversations with the club here about possibly playing.
”For whatever reason, those conversations didn’t materialize, but they could have. I mean, we had no reservation about playing.”
The rancor prompted major golf organizations to adopt membership policies for tournament sites.
Several major sponsors – including Anheuser-Busch, Toyota and IBM – yanked TV ads and black organizations threatened to picket outside.
And now? ”We’re extremely comfortable on all fronts,” Finchem said.
Champions Tour player Steve Lowery, who lives in Birmingham, credits Mike Thompson, a Shoal Creek board member and Hall’s son, for helping put that controversy in the past.
”It’s because Mike Thompson was proactive in taking the initiative to do things right, and he’s done them right all the way,” said Lowery, a former Shoal Creek member. ”He’s done a great job with all of those issues. They’re in the past. We’re going forward.”
At the time, he said, the experience ”was painful, because I knew it wasn’t accurate (about) people as a whole here. It was a little bit unfair.”
The Jack Nicklaus-designed course eased back into the national golf scene by hosting the 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.
Now, it is replacing the city’s Regions Charity Classic across town. The Tradition was held at Sunriver Resort’s Crosswater Golf Club in central Oregon the past four years before the title sponsor pulled out.
”It feels like a major venue,” said Kenny Perry, who teamed with Scott Hoch to finish second two weeks ago in the Legends of Golf. ”It feels like par is a good score this week. Majors on the regular tour, par is the number you’re after. If you can make a couple of birdies, you try to make them, just hang in there with them, hold on to them and not let them go. I think this week’s going to be a similar kind of situation.”
The tournament comes a week after a deadly tornado ravaged the Birmingham area. Champions Tour players have donated items and raised $50,000 at an auction, while the tour is giving $100,000.
Some of the players are rekindling somewhat dim memories of the course. Couples is among 16 returning after making the cuts in 1984 and 1990.
Couples said he doesn’t remember any shots from the venue’s last PGA Championship.
”But I remember Lee Trevino making a putt on the last green and kissing his putter,” he said.
Beyond that, the talk was largely about the rough that lived up to its name. That was in August, though, and the Bermuda grass hasn’t grown out so much this time.
”I remember the rough being to where you had to chip it sideways to get it back out on the fairway,” recalls John Cook, who played in the 1984 event and has already won twice on the Champions Tour this year.
Adds Nick Price: ”It was so deep here and you basically felt like you were walking on a tightrope the whole time playing.”
Couples and Price are both dealing with back pain, while Cook has battled a stomach virus for the last week.
Couples said Wednesday’s pro-am was only the second round of golf he has played since the Masters three weeks earlier. He said he was up at 5 a.m. using an electrical stimulation machine for his back.
”It’s been really in pain since last October, where it’s been this toothache, which is not a lot of fun,” said Couples, who has 15 PGA Tour wins and grabbed four Champions Tour titles last year. ”I’ve been struggling for a lot of years but not like the last six or seven months.
”I don’t foresee feeling like that and playing much more golf, unless I play five times in a year. It’s not really worth it.”