Augusta National’s conundrum: Should the golf club purposely not invite a woman?
Augusta National Golf Club is a place of grand and strict traditions. Members must wear green jackets while on the premises. Caddies are mandatory. Annual fees and club membership are ostensibly secret. There is never, ever any running.
This is the most exclusive golf club in the world, just three hundred or so names and they are prominent – Warren Bufffett, Bill Gates, Lynn Swann, T. Boone Pickens and so on.
Here are two other traditions.
Historically, the sitting CEO of International Business Machines (IBM) is offered an invitation for membership. The club has never had a female member, even in the face of repeated public protests.
Now here’s the conundrum.
On Jan. 1, 2012, IBM named Virginia “Ginni” M. Rometty, a woman, as CEO. Bloomberg News Service, which first reported this, says she golfs, at least a little bit.
What will, or can, Augusta National do?
I’ve never believed that a private club should be forced to accept certain members. As long as they are complying with the law, the point of being a private club is that you can make private decisions.
I’ve been to Augusta National many times and it is one of the most staid, conservative places imaginable. That’s how they like it. To suggest it is outwardly hostile to women is a stretch, though. There are women everywhere. They can play as guests. They hang out as spouses.
This has often seemed like an overblown wedge issue.
[Related: Augusta can step forward with invitation]
The all-male policy is more of an act of defiance. It’s the one-percenters getting their chance to push back on society. They keep pretty much everybody out. Women are just one subset. They aren’t excited about taking in anyone, so adding a fabulously wealthy woman as a member changes little to nothing.
So I’m neither offended nor supportive. I’ve found the level they’ll go to stick to their tradition amusing. At one point, they demanded CBS broadcast the tournament with no commercials, so corporate sponsors couldn’t be protested. I’ve covered the various flare-ups but never been a huge advocate one way or the other.
This is a new debate, though.
This is the time when an invitation should be extended to a woman because at a place of great tradition, at a place where the accomplishment of ascending to such a corporate throne was always valued, how can they change policy and claim it isn’t about gender discrimination?
This is no longer a choice over whether to invite a woman as a member.
It’s now a choice to purposely not invite a woman.
There’s a difference – a big, big difference.
[Related: Ten facts about The Masters green jacket]
Former IBM CEOs John F. Akers, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. and Sam Palmisano are all current members, according to club documents and various online databases which attempt to track Augusta’s membership. Their predecessor, John R. Opel, was a member until he died last November. Four previous CEOs, all deceased, were also reportedly members.
It’s not a coincidence IBM is one of the Masters’ chief sponsors – and on a course where the idea of corporate hospitality tents would cause disgust, the company does reportedly have a cabin on the grounds.
It isn’t easy getting into Augusta National. The standards for admission are generally vague and shifting. Taking over at IBM, though, is one of the few tried and true routes.
Rometty is only the company’s ninth chief executive ever, so it’s not like it’s an easy job to come by.
Augusta National probably never saw this one coming. It’s here, though.
The club has changed and attempted to modernize in recent years, taking small but noticeable steps under president Billy Payne.
More of the event is on television. It has an active website and a phone app. The course is the star of a video game. While these also bring in additional money, that isn’t the chief goal. Augusta already has more money than it could ever spend.
Members have made an effort in recent years to get out and mingle with fans, even making sweeps through the media center just to chat with reporters. It’s clear the club wants a more open reputation – to a point, of course.
This is Billy Payne’s big moment, though. And it’s a simple one.
By long-established Augusta National standards (long before anyone ever dreamed that women would be members at country clubs), Ginny Rometty has earned an invitation for membership.
Payne should quietly offer it. If she accepts, then they should bring her in with little fanfare. The ultimate Augusta National way would be without press release or comment, like this was never a big deal.
Everyone can save face. Everyone can move on.
Absolutely nothing tangible in America will change, but Augusta National can shed one more tie to a past that is discomforting to many.
The other choice is to reaffirm it in the clearest manner ever.
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