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Hiltzik: Augusta National's woman problem

March 31, 2012|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Martha Burk in 2002
Martha Burk in 2002 (Susan Walsh )

Few institutions revel in the reputation of being a dinosaur like 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, then-Chairman Hootie Johnson declared that the club would admit women at some time in the future, but not "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 males-only tradition is about to clash with another, which is that Augusta offers membership to the chairman of IBM — at least the last four chairmen have been members. As of Jan. 1, IBM has been chaired by a woman. She’s Virginia Rometty, whose service to IBM dates back three decades.

This places Augusta and IBM in parallel dilemmas. IBM has a very close relationship with Augusta and the Masters. It’s a leading advertiser, provides the tournament’s computing services and 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 be offered members, and what it will do if that doesn’t happen.

IBM hasn't spoken on the issue, and no one even knows whether Rometty wants to be a member. That's immaterial: The fact is that Augusta’s stance is indefensible, and has been for years. The club and its apologists, such as Washington Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins, maintain that as a private organization it should be free to set its own membership rules, like (from Jenkins’ list) the YWCA and African American fraternities.

Sorry, that doesn’t wash. Augusta’s record of retrograde exclusivity is long and contemptible. The club didn’t admit its first black member until 1990 (when the honor went to a Virginia television executive). And there’s a big difference between an organization aimed at promoting or protecting the interests of a marginalized group, and one with supposedly a broader purpose.

Augusta National, moreover, isn’t only a private club. It’s the force behind a major public televised event that draws viewers from all over the world and advertisers from the highest echelons of commerce. The club may be legally within its rights to exclude an entire category of people from membership, but that’s an infantile policy and should be condemned, not honored as some sort of blow for freedom of assembly.

CBS, which revels in its role as the longtime TV home of the Masters, and advertisers such as IBM are certainly responsible for helping Augusta perpetuate discrimination. But we should also blame the pro golfers who participate in the tournament. What gives the Masters its cachet is that it fields the greatest players in the game. Here’s a bet: The moment some of them register their displeasure by rejecting the coveted invitation, the club will begin to fold its hand. Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Rory McIlroy — the ball’s teed up.

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