Though all eyes will be on Tiger Woods, another African American of note will be at Aronimink Golf Club this week.

Kenneth Hill plans to be in the gallery of the place where he quietly made history.

As the PGA Tour brings its AT&T National event to the once all-white club, the towering black frame of Hill will be seen once more on the verdant slopes of Aronimink, a playing field he hopes he has subtly helped to level.

"I can't deny that I honestly had some impact," said Hill, 72, an affable business executive who in 1998 became the first African American to be granted full-fledged membership by the venerable club. He left in 2003, pleading retirement and bad knees.

Perhaps it is fitting that the AT&T National has come to Aronimink, for the tournament has always been closely identified with Woods.

Personally flawed but professionally peerless, the multiracial Woods is considered by many to be the greatest golfer of any hue to ever tee it up.

And Aronimink has played a significant, if not always flattering, role in the racial evolution of a sport that had slammed the door on blacks longer than any other.

Woods had been the four-year-old tournament's host until his infidelity scandal prompted sponsor AT&T to distance itself from him. But his Tiger Woods Foundation remains a beneficiary, and he plans to play this week.

When the tournament announced a two-year commitment to Aronimink in late 2008, Woods called it "an amazing course with a rich history in golf."

Much of that history involves golf's difficult relationship with race.

In 1962, Aronimink hosted the PGA Championship - and, in doing so, provided refuge to the PGA after California's attorney general effectively chased the organization out of his state for racial discrimination.

In 1990, a more enlightened PGA of America challenged Aronimink's all-white status. It refused to allow the club to host its 1993 PGA Championship without first admitting a minority as a full member.

Aronimink responded by pulling out, saying it could not meet the PGA's deadline. It refused to jump a minority golfer ahead of others on its waiting list.

It was not until 1998, seven years after first applying, that Ken Hill came aboard with full privileges.

"It was a social experiment," Hill recalled last week. "There is no other way to put it."

Today, says Aronimink president David Boucher, the club has multiple minority and female members, though he declined to say how many.

The events of the early 1990s and before, he said, seem like ancient history - noting that the nation's president, as well as its best golfer, are people of color.

"I think what's happened," Boucher said, "is the whole world has changed. . . ."

Entrenched racism

It took a crusading public official to drag the PGA out from behind its long-entrenched wall of racism.

By 1961 - years after other major sports had integrated - the PGA continued to limit its membership to "professional golfers of the Caucasian race."

The victims of that attitude included Aronimink's first pro, John Shippen, a black golfer who worked for the club from 1900 to 1902.

Shippen's 1896 entry into the second U.S. Open "precipitated golf's first racial issue" when white pros threatened to withdraw, according to a history of Aronimink by sportswriter Fred Byrod.

Sponsors ignored the protests, "everyone played and Shippen, then only 17, tied for fifth place," Byrod wrote.

The PGA was not so accepting of Shippen, who died in 1968. Only last year did the PGA of America bestow posthumous membership on him.

"These men, but for the color of their skin, would have been PGA members," PGA of America President Jim Remy said in November.

That was a far cry from a half-century earlier, when the organization scheduled its 1962 championship at an all-white club in Los Angeles. California Attorney General Stanley Mosk stepped in, declaring the PGA in violation of public policy and law and urging other states to follow suit.

"But somehow," Mosk later said, "Pennsylvania slipped through the cracks" - and the 1962 tournament came to all-white Aronimink.

The press was quiet. The Inquirer, playing up the tournament, "never mentioned" the reason for its move from California, John H. Kennedy wrote in 2005 in A Course of Their Own: A History of African American Golfers.

That task fell to the NAACP. It sent a letter of protest, saying it was "extremely unhappy that Aronimink has decided to make itself a party to the [PGA's] continuing un-American practices."

By then the PGA had rescinded its whites-only policy. Future Hall of Famer Charlie Sifford, the North Carolina-born Philadelphian who became known as the "Jackie Robinson of Golf," sought to play in the 1962 tournament, but the PGA said his record wasn't good enough.

The winner was Gary Player of apartheid South Africa, who became one of Sifford's biggest supporters.

In 1988, Aronimink again accepted an invitation from the PGA, this time to host its 1993 championship tournament.

But those plans would soon be scuttled by a racial imbroglio hundreds of miles away. And this time there would be no shortage of publicity.

Uproar at Shoal Creek

"That's just not done in Birmingham, Alabama."

In 1990, that was the slur heard 'round the golfing world. It was the response of Hall Thompson, founder of Shoal Creek Country Club - the PGA Championship's 1990 host - when asked why his club had no black members.

He then dug the hole deeper: "I think we've said that we don't discriminate in every other area except the blacks."

Amid the ensuing uproar, Shoal Creek swiftly took in its first black member, and the PGA of America declared a policy change. It would no longer allow all-white clubs to host its events.

Aronimink and as many as 17 other PGA site hosts were caught in the bind. Unlike some others, the club said that it never had discriminated, that it welcomed black guests, and that it intended to admit black members.

The problem, its officials said, was a seven-year waiting list approaching 100 people, many of whom had already paid initiation fees of $15,000. Refusing to advance blacks ahead of those already in line, Aronimink withdrew as the 1993 PGA host.

That contrasted with "clubs whose troglodyte members have stated, publicly and proudly, that they will continue to wallow in their exclusivity," Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon wrote. "Still, there is the suspicion that Aronimink took the easy way out."

Behind the scenes, the club quickly set its sights on the man who would become its first member of color.

He had grown up in South Ardmore, a long iron shot or two from the gilded glens of Merion Golf Club. His mother was a maid; his father, a janitor and a chauffeur for several Main Line families.

Ken Hill had graduated in 1955 from Lower Merion High School, earned a degree from Temple University, went on to graduate classes at Penn, and for years had been scratching his way up the corporate ladder of Sun Oil Co.

By 1990, Hill was in his 50s, a 6-foot-7 vice president in public affairs and the top-ranking black person at Sun. His easygoing style had enabled him to continue his climb despite countless racial slights.

Hill had been rejected for housing in Michigan, turned away by country clubs there and in New Jersey, even confronted by white gas station owners in Montgomery County who "didn't do business with n-s."

Since no country club "would have me," Hill recalled, he joined a tennis club, not at all "like a full-blown country club."

Golf was not Hill's passion, anyway. Having first been forced to pick up a club during a sales meeting, he had been athletic enough to not embarrass himself, but "didn't have a clue as to what golf was all about."

So when Sun Oil CEO Robert Campbell approached him about joining Aronimink, Hill had to think about it.

As a public affairs executive, he needed a place to entertain clients. His less senior colleagues were already enjoying a perk he had long been denied.

Yet he wondered how he would fit in. He remembered how, as a guest at another area club, he had once been mistaken for a bootblack.

"Someone had brought their shoes over to me and said, 'Would you please take care of these for me? I'm going to go have a drink,' " he said, laughing. "I think I said, 'As soon as you take care of mine. I have a pretty big foot; I think it's a 13.' I can't tell you how red he turned."

Plus, the timing of the offer, so soon after Shoal Creek, seemed fairly transparent.

"We had a conversation in [Campbell's] office," he said. "And it seemed there was an inevitability about it, because there was a pressure point. . . . The PGA would not have its events at a club without minority representation."

In a telephone interview from his home in California, Campbell said he "vaguely" remembered the long-ago conversation in his office.

"He and his family were outstanding individuals. It just seemed kind of a natural that I sponsor him," he said.

"It seems strange now, describing something like that as a big deal," Campbell said. "But back then it was. It was significant to Ken, it was significant to the club."

It was also a matter of debate among Hill's family and black friends.

"There were those in my family and in my 'community' who said, 'I wouldn't put up with that,' " Hill said. "And then there were others who said, 'Hang in there. You've got to do it.' "

He agreed.

"I just said, 'Damn it, it's worth it. If I don't do it, who will?' "

He set aside his corporate pragmatism and grew philosophical. "I felt that I had pioneered in this whole corporate world, so stick with it."

Hill became a social member in 1991 and, true to its public stance, Aronimink did not bump him ahead of others for full membership. That took seven years.

Throughout, he said, he and his wife, Irene, felt welcomed and well-treated at Aronimink - if a bit on display.

"You're constantly being observed," he said. "Some people would be genuinely concerned about your well-being and your family; others, you could see right through it. But that's life in general."

Hill left Aronimink in 2003, three years after retiring. He no longer needed a country club for business, his handicap was still over 20, and his knees were complaining. ("I didn't want to be the wimp who needed to take a cart.")

In his stead have come others, Aronimink president Boucher said.

"We do have minority members," he said. "We have an enlightened board of governors, and there is an interest in becoming more diverse."

Boucher said he and the club are active in First Tee of Philadelphia, a national program designed to expose city kids to golf and use it as a teaching tool. First Tee students have played at Aronimink, and 100 of them are to attend this week's tournament and receive lessons from tour player Sean O'Hair, an Aronimink member.

Boucher wouldn't discuss what efforts Aronimink has taken to recruit adult minority members, but said it's a topic that comes up often.

"Our officers' group talks about this all the time," he said. "We're always on the lookout for diversity."

As for Hill, he still golfs some, but with a more relaxing circle of friends, he said.

"We go around to a variety of golf venues, a bunch of retired military guys, police officers - a whole eclectic group of people that I have a lot more fun with," he said. "I don't feel like I'm in the fishbowl any longer."

But he is glad he was in that fishbowl for a time.

"No doubt about it," he said. "I look back on it like I look back on my career, and I feel blessed in many ways."

Contact staff writer Larry King
at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.