AUGUSTA, Ga. — Behind a lush barrier of bamboo and pines as impregnable as a castle's wall, Augusta National Golf Club appears snugly insulated from the controversy raging around it. While outsiders debate the club's right to remain an all-male bastion, the only activity visible within its closed gates is the annual primping that precedes a new winter season at one of America's most venerated golf courses.
If there is hand-wringing among club officials or its far-flung membership of 300 corporate titans and statesmen over a recent dust-up with women's groups, it is for them--and them alone--to know.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 569 words Type of Material: Correction
Gene Sarazen--In the Sept. 8 Section A, a caption accompanying a 1955 photo of Gene Sarazen identified the golfer as a U.S. Open champion but did not specify that he won that tournament in 1922 and 1932.
William W. "Hootie" Johnson, the club's chairman, has been tight-lipped since he announced Aug. 30 that Augusta National would drop corporate sponsorship of its televised Masters tournament to avoid pressure from a coalition of women's organizations that is pushing the club to accept female members. The club's rank and file--if some of America's richest and most powerful men can be considered such--are likewise staying mum.
Even some local supporters of the 70-year-old club--and there are many in Augusta, though few residents belong--politely decline to comment publicly for fear of being dragged into a scrap they say has little hope of a tidy outcome.
"I'm not touching that one," said a female golfer who added that she has "mixed feelings" about Augusta National's stance. The club has no rule against female members but argues that as a private club it reserves the right to decide when it will invite women, if ever.
There is nothing new in this insularity. Since its founding in 1932 by the late golfing great Bobby Jones, a Georgian, and Clifford Roberts, an Iowan turned New York money man, the club has crafted its own, often quirky, rules--and enforced them with a martinet's severity. Club rules govern everything from the members' signature green jackets (they are not to be worn off-premises) to the overall comportment of members (one was reportedly booted when it was discovered he kept two wives).
Among the rules is that members don't discuss club affairs in public. So while it hosts one of golf's most-watched and revered tournaments, Augusta National remains as shrouded in secrecy as Skull and Bones. Even in Augusta, where the Masters generates civic pride and millions of dollars in commerce each spring, much of what goes on at Augusta National wafts out merely as rumor. Each summer, the city's golfing cognoscenti buzz over the club's rumored new invitees.
"They don't talk to us any more than they talk to anyone else," said Dennis Sodomka, executive editor of the Augusta Chronicle. The newspaper's publisher, William S. Morris III, is a club member, but he leaks nothing to the reporters writing about the Masters a floor below his office.
Augusta residents have kept out of the brouhaha. The Chronicle carried Johnson's announcement on the front page, but the story fell off quickly. Few readers have written letters to the editor--an indication that many in town don't see the club's membership policies as any of their business.
"It's just not something that interests anybody. It doesn't affect anyone here except for a dozen people or so," said Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who received his only correspondence, an e-mail, about the matter on Wednesday, five days after the issue flared up. ("Tell those boys at Augusta National that I am behind them 100%," the message said.)
Since the club was built on 365 acres of nursery land, it has been left alone to tend its high-powered membership, which has included President Eisenhower; former Secretary of State George P. Shultz; Warren Buffett, chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway; Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric; Sanford Weill, CEO of Citigroup; Douglas Warner III, former CEO of J.P. Morgan; Robert Allen, former CEO of AT&T; Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express; and Lou Gerstner, former chairman of IBM.
Longtime club chairman Roberts presided with an iron fist. He made concession workers cut holes in their pockets to discourage them from raiding the till. He summarily dismissed members--and one Masters golfer--for breaching club decorum. He banned CBS broadcasters when he didn't like what they said on the air. He demanded flawless grounds. He held down the costs of attending the Masters (tickets, known at the club as "badges," go for $125, a fraction of their value on the open market, while the club's famed pimento cheese sandwich still costs just $1.25). He also made it clear that opening membership to blacks and women was out of the question.
In 1977, Roberts shot himself to death on the club's exquisitely manicured grounds, near the eighth hole. Roberts had ordered that his body be cremated and the ashes buried or scattered at the club. The site remains one of the club's mysteries. There have been four chairmen since, including Johnson, 71, a former South Carolina banker who took over in 1998.