By Andrew Both
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - Golfers arriving for The Masters at Augusta National on Monday were nudged into addressing Georgia's new voting restrictions debate, but tried to steer clear of the controversy including Major League Baseball's decision to remove the All-Star Game from Atlanta over the issue.
The Masters is the year's first golf major and one of the most popular annual sports events. Often described as Spring Break for CEOs, the tournament is a magnet for America's corporate elite, some of whom belong to Augusta National, which has gone to great lengths in the past to shield its members.
Golfers have also rarely waded into sensitive areas eager to avoid offending their hosts, and again on Monday treaded softly around Georgia's voting issues.
"This voter stuff and voters for American citizens is very important," said 2020 PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa. "Overall the topic of voter rights and all that, that should be the topic that we talk about, (but) not if we are here playing golf."
MLB's announcement on Friday marked one of the most high-profile reactions after Georgia last month passed more stringent voter identification requirements for absentee ballots, shortened early voting periods for runoffs and made it a crime to offer food and water to voters waiting in line.
Critics say the law passed by Georgia's Republican-led state legislature was intended to make it harder for Black people to vote after a big turnout in November and January led to unexpected Democratic victories in the presidential election and two U.S. Senate run-off races.
Augusta National has had its own fraught history with race. The Masters, which began in 1934, did not invite a Black player to compete until 1975, and the club did not allow a Black member until 1990.
The decision to move the All-Star Game has rankled many Republicans, including Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who sent a letter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday asking him if he will relinquish his Augusta National membership as a personal protest over Georgia's new laws.
"As you are well aware, the exclusive members-only club is located in the State of Georgia," wrote Rubio. "Last week, you “decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game” from Atlanta because of Georgia’s revised election law.
"It is a decision that will have a bigger impact on countless small and minority owned businesses in and around Atlanta, than the new election law ever will. And one that reeks of hypocrisy," Rubio said.
Consumer pressures like those applied to MLB and its sponsors have not had the same impact on Augusta National.
When the club was under pressure to allow women members it opted to broadcast the 2003 Masters commercial free to keep tournament sponsors from being pulled into the controversy. It finally allowed membership by women in 2012.
"I don't know enough about that (Georgia voting law)," said golfer Patrick Cantlay, deftly avoiding offering an opinion. "I do know that this tournament in particular does a ton for the community; so that's obvious and important for the folks around here.
"I know the tournament is big into doing great things for Augusta, and I think it's a net positive for sure that we're playing and the fact that they do so much for the surrounding area and for growing the game."
The opening round of the Masters is set for Thursday when Dustin Johnson will begin defense of the Green Jacket that goes to the winner.
(Writing Steve Keating in Toronto Editing by Bill Berkrot)