By Donna Cornelius
Journal Features Writer
When Mike Thompson played golf with his father, he kept his eye on the ball and his mind on one objective: to play the first hole well.
“That’s because Dad would always pick on the worst player in the foursome,” said Mike about his father, the late Hall Thompson. “My goal was to beat the other two guys so he’d pick on them.”
Even high-profile folks weren’t immune to the elder Thompson’s friendly criticism. Once, said Mike, Bill Gates was on the receiving end of some hints from Hall.
Hall Thompson died last October, and Mike has lots of wonderful memories of his father, both on the golf course and off. Those thoughts are especially vivid as tee-off time approaches for the upcoming Regions Tradition set for May 3-8. The tournament, the first major championship of the 2011 Champions Tour season, will be played at Shoal Creek Country Club, founded in 1977 by Hall Thompson.
The Regions Tradition is expected to have a 66-player field, including such well-known names as Tom Watson, Fuzzy Zoeller and Ben Crenshaw. Practice rounds begin May 3 followed by a pro-am tournament May 4. Tournament play begins Thursday; the final round is Sunday.
“This is one of the five most important tournaments” for the Champions Tour, said Mike. “The guys want to win for the prestige and the money. They’ll be serious about their play.”
Shoal Creek is accustomed to big events; the club hosted PGA championships in 1984 and 1990. Both were opportunities for the club to show off its world-class course and facilities. The second, however, brought some less than desirable publicity. Like many private clubs at that time, Shoal Creek had no minority members. After national media coverage and a threatened boycott of the PGA event, the club admitted its first African-American member, Louis Willie Jr.
“When that issue came up in 1990, we took in Lou Willie and reached out to other African-Americans,” said Mike. “We also encouraged greater access through guest play, weddings and parties at the club and vendors and suppliers.
“The club never did anything but look forward. We’ve been proactive. And Dad was never embittered. He had a great life. “
One of Shoal Creek’s most famous members today is former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She’ll serve as honorary chairman for the Regions Tradition, hitting the first ball of the tournament and participating in the pro-am event.
Mike said that his father and Dr. Rice, both staunch Republicans, once shared a good-natured grouse about issues brought up in a speech by President Barack Obama who is, of course, a Democrat.
Mike, who in 1986 succeeded his father as president of Thompson Tractor Co., first hit the links at age four, playing golf in high school and for his fraternity at the University of Alabama.
“Dad always worked on my swing,” he said. “He loved to see good golf. We’d go into our den at night and practice my swing by looking at the reflection in the TV.”
Besides Shoal Creek, Mike’s favorite course is Augusta National.
“I work on the Masters’ concession committee,” he said, smilingly referring to himself as a champion “egg salad sandwich salesman.”
Pebble Beach, Seminole and Merion are also on his A-list.
“I like the good ones,” he said. “Friends recently offered to take me to Sand Hills in Nebraska and Fisher Island in Rhode Island, so those are two wishes that I fulfilled. I’m working my way through the top 30 courses.
“My grandmother and father loved playing golf in Ireland, and one of my goals is to play the great Irish courses.”
Shoal Creek, a Jack Nicklaus-designed course, is a great venue for major tournaments because “it can be anything you want it to be,” said Mike. “It can be a bear of a course, or you can just play it and have a lovely time with your friends. It’s a chameleon – it can be difficult or not so difficult.
“Aesthetically, it’s very serene. We have beautiful hardwoods and pines and lots of water features. It’s like walking in a park.”
Mike expects large crowds for the upcoming tournament.
“The golf public in Birmingham is incredible,” he said. “In 1984, our crowds broke PGA records. In 1990, we had 200,000-plus.”
The tournament will be a whirlwind of activity from start to finish. On the grounds will be the players and their entourages, corporate guests and spectators. The Golf Channel will broadcast on site live on the final four days. The Bruno Event Team and club members will join forces to make sure everything runs smoothly.
But even amid the hubbub, Mike Thompson will be thinking about his dad, without whom Shoal Creek would not exist, and about the love of golf shared by father and son.
“Golf haunts me like it haunts all golfers,” said Mike. “You get something working well in your game, and then you change it. It’s the greatest game of all.”
For ticket information, event times and the latest news on the Regions Tradition at Shoal Creek, visit www.regionstradition.com.