The mild winter ensures full blooms on the azaleas. Five different winners in the last five years eliminates any hint of predictability. Tiger Woods’ first tour win in 2½ years last week teases us into believing golf’s preeminent figure can return to dominance and provide some red-shirt drama on Sunday.
Welcome to the perfect backdrop for next week’s Masters, bliss for the Lords of Augusta National.
Well, except this: That women issue.
If it had never quite died, it at least had gone dormant, like Bermuda fairways. But the question of whether Augusta National will finally open the doors to female members — even if “at the point of a bayonet,” to reprise the charges of former chairman William “Hootie” Johnson – is bigger now than ever before. Even bigger than when Martha Burk first sent her little letter to Johnson nearly 10 years ago asking about the club’s exclusionary policies, sparking a very public and ugly debate, from break rooms to board rooms.
In January, IBM, which is one of the Masters’ major sponsors and runs the tournament’s website and the technology in the media center, named its new CEO: She’s a she.
Virginia “Ginni” Rometty is the ninth CEO in the company’s history but the first female. The previous eight previous CEOs all were extended memberships by Augusta National. The three former CEOs still living remain members, as are the CEOs of the Masters’ other two major sponsors, AT&T and ExxonMobil.
“They’ve got themselves into a quandary, and deservedly so,” said Burk, who organized protests outside of Augusta National’s gates in 2003. She now aids women in corporations who believe they have been victims of sex discrimination. “They need to come into the 21st century. I said it nine years ago and I’ll say it now: They have a Neanderthal attitude, and that doesn’t reflect well on the club or the membership.”
Your move, Billy.
Steve Ethun, Augusta National spokesman, said the club and chairman Billy Payne would have “no comment
or statement” on the situation, which has drawn media attention this week from Bloomberg, Yahoo, ESPN and the New York Times. The response is no surprise. The club generally doesn’t discuss membership policies or much beyond pin placement or the length of the rough.
If Payne is asked about it Wednesday during his annual state-of-the-sod-and-azalea address, his answer likely will be brief and unrevealing.
This is the true Masters’ tradition like no other: One man speaks for the club, and it’s his job to respond with an extended digit, albeit with a well-manicured nail.
My position on this hasn’t changed. Augusta National is a private club, so the club technically is correct when it states it has the right to exclude anybody it desires. But the Masters is the most public of events. It’s on public television. The relative great unwashed can purchase admission (even if tournament badges are difficult to come be).
These aren’t old guys wearing their “Loyal Order of Moose” hats, yukking it up and telling old stories about Jayne Mansfield. (Well, they might be, but that’s not the point.)
Johnson once likened Augusta National’s policies to “sororities, fraternities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts.” The flaw in that analogy: There’s no yin to Augusta’s and the Masters’ yang.
Payne has been progressive in many ways since taking over for Johnson in 2006. He has expanded television coverage, instituted a junior patron program, sanctioned a Masters video game, even developing an iPhone app with live video streams.
But there has been no movement on women members. Payne has never said “never,” but his actions now will reveal everything. He can’t leave the door open and then do nothing because, in the case of Rometty, it would be setting precedent.
Burk said Rometty (who has declined comment through a spokesman), “has the power in the company to exert influence if she so desires.”
But she’s not sure Payne really cares.
“I’m certain part of the deal when he became chairman was he would adhere to Hootie Johnson’s policies,” she said. “He’s no better or morally responsible than Johnson was.”
We’ll know soon enough. But it really makes no sense for Payne to put this off any longer. This much is certain: Even if the issue goes dormant, it’s never going away.
By Jeff Schultz