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Teeing off on Augusta National Golf Club's men-only policy

April 03, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • Augusta National Golf Club's mens-only policy is back in the spotlight because the new IBM chief executive is a woman, Virginia Rometty, shown in February 2006. At least the last four CEOs of IBM, a major sponsor of the Masters telecast, have been members of Augusta.
Augusta National Golf Club's mens-only policy is back in the spotlight… (Dima Gavrysh, Associated…)

Few institutions revel in the reputation of being a dinosaur like Georgia's Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters Tournament.

Augusta has never admitted a woman to membership and has even tried to portray its adamantine stance as a virtue: When activist Martha Burk launched a public challenge to its males-only membership policy in 2002, the club's then-chairman, Hootie Johnson, won plaudits (in some quarters) for declaring that although the club might admit women at some time in the future, it would not make a decision "at the point of a bayonet." It must be a long bayonet, because the club still hasn't budged.

For a decade the issue seemed to go away, but it may be hard to avoid now, on the eve of the 2012 Masters, which starts Thursday. That's because the men-only tradition is about to clash with another, which is that chief executives of IBM end up on the membership rolls. Whether they ask to join or are invited isn't clear, but at least the last four — John Opel, John Akers, Lou Gerstner and Sam Palmisano — have been members.

As of Jan. 1, the CEO of IBM has been a woman. She's Virginia Rometty, whose service to the corporation dates back three decades.

This places Augusta and IBM in parallel quandaries. IBM has a very close relationship with Augusta and the Masters. It's a leading sponsor of the tournament telecast and provides the Masters with computing services. Its logo is plastered all over the tournament's website. Burk, among others, has already questioned whether IBM will stand silently by and wait for Rometty to ask for or be offered membership, whether it will decide to press the issue with Augusta, and what it will do, if anything, if the situation becomes a public embarrassment.

It's possible that the club might move now, with the issue being aired again as its signature tournament tees off. IBM hasn't spoken on the issue, and no one even knows whether Rometty wants to be a member.

But all that is immaterial: Augusta has maintained its indefensible men-only stance long past the point at which it should have joined the modern world. And even an abrupt about-face by the club wouldn't cleanse the hands of the public corporations that have chosen to play the role of enablers of Augusta's discrimination, such as IBM and tournament co-sponsors AT&T and Exxon Mobil, for all those years. All three companies pay lip service (at least) to diversity and corporate citizenship. How can they justify promoting an enterprise that flouts those same principles?

Compare their behavior to the 1986 decree by Arco, then the largest corporation in Southern California, that it would no longer pay dues for executives at clubs that discriminated against women and minorities. The two downtown clubs that were most affected, the California and Jonathan clubs, altered their behavior pretty promptly.

Augusta and its apologists maintain that private organizations shouldn't be told whom they may or may not admit as a member. Augusta even has tried to elevate this position to the level of moral imperative. Hootie Johnson wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2002 that "women's colleges like Smith and Wellesley, historically black colleges like Spelman, the Girl Scouts of America, the Junior League, fraternities and sororities" all "discriminate" in the same sense as Augusta and therefore "would all have to be dissolved or radically changed from the single-sex profile that has become an essential part of their character" if the golf club did not stand up for liberty. "Some things are worth defending," Johnson wrote.

Augusta's claim of principle would be more convincing, if marginally so, if its record of discrimination were not so lengthy and contemptible. The club opened in 1933 and didn't admit its first black member until 1990 (the honor went to a Virginia television executive). One can only hope that Augusta didn't pat itself on the back too strongly then for standing up for the principle of equality set forth by Martin Luther King Jr., since King had been dead for 22 years at the time. This is what made Johnson's claim in 2002 that Augusta provides an opportunity "for men of all backgrounds to seek a place and time for camaraderie with other men" reek of hypocrisy, for it hadn't been so long before then that a man's "background" had counted for a lot at Augusta.

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