Augusta National finds itself in a bind between traditions: ‘all male’ and sponsors’ honors

Jay Busbee

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It's spring, and in Augusta, Ga. that means the blooming of azaleas along the fabled fairways of Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. And, following close behind, the blooming of yet another controversy surrounding the club and its policies of membership and inclusion.

At issue this year: the all-male membership standard versus a traditional method of honoring sponsors of The Masters. As Bloomberg's Beth Jinks and Michael Buteau note, Augusta traditionally invites CEOs of its three primary sponsors -- IBM, ExxonMobil and AT&T -- to don a green jacket while on the grounds. And while Augusta keeps its membership rolls secret, many IBM CEOs have been invited to join the highly exclusive and coveted club.

The problem for Augusta? IBM's new CEO is female. And Augusta has not admitted a female member in its eight decades of existence.

Whether one sees Augusta's stance on women, minorities and other theoretically-excluded groups as a private club's privilege or an outdated relic of a long-gone time really depends on one's own perspective. The club, for its part, declined comment to Yahoo! Sports, as it does on all member-related issues. Club members get to wear the same green jackets as the winners during the tournament, a sign of ultimate prestige while on the grounds of Augusta National.

Question is, will new IBM CEO Ginny Rometty be afforded that same privilege? Augusta has long held a policy of stolid indifference to the political and social movements of the day, most notoriously in 2003 when it held firm against the protests of Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations.

But club president Billy Payne has taken steps in recent years to help modernize the club's image. He's promoted more viewer-friendly environments, and in 2010 took the drastic (for Augusta) step of criticizing Tiger Woods for his marital indiscretions.

Chances are, Augusta will handle this issue the way it always has: by admitting its first woman on its own terms, not those of outside interest groups. And for the vast majority of fans (called "patrons" while on the grounds), the issue won't be whether Augusta admits a woman to its membership, but whether Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy can snag a green jacket of their own.

Still, this represents an opportunity for Augusta, a chance to take a step forward and acknowledge that the times are changing, even for a tiny club in a small Georgia city.

Golf's Masters facing male-only dilemma [Bloomberg]