With the azaleas in full bloom this week in Augusta, the world watches as the greatest male golfers battle for the coveted green jacket that is awarded to the Masters champion. While this week brings plenty of headlines shared between the likes of Tiger, Rory and Phil; one story that has not gone away is the issue of membership at Augusta National Golf Club.
Though the calendar says it is 2012, apparently the members down in Georgia have yet to fully turn the page into the 21st century. Women are still forbidden to join the exclusive golf club, which only allowed African-Americans into their elite group in 1990. Though this topic tends to come up every spring, the reason it has made news this year is that one of the key corporate sponsors for the Masters is the company IBM. Exxon Mobil Corp and At&T Inc are the other two. Traditionally the CEO of the respective companies is offered membership to the club. IBM has a new CEO that took over this past January, Virginia Rometty. Both the CEO’s of Exxon and At&T are current members as is the former CEO of IBM. The only one missing the invite is the one with two X-chromosomes.
Billy Payne is the current president at Augusta National and had this to say this week about the membership issue. “All issues of membership remain the private deliberations of the membership. That statement remains accurate,” Payne said. “We don’t talk about our private deliberations. We especially don’t talk about them when a named candidate is part of the question.”
Payne spent much of the week trying to sidestep the barrage of questions regarding whether or not the coveted club was planning on changing their policy. Perhaps the lack of change is because they have yet to feel any pressure to do so. In 1990 the PGA championship was held at Shoal Creek, a whites only golf club. Several companies (including IBM) pulled their TV ads in protest. A short time later Augusta invited its first black member.
So where are the protests now? IBM has remained mum on the issue so far. The company seems keen on avoiding the spotlight that is growing increasingly brighter on a topic that many down south would like to disappear. Another voice that has been largely absent from the conversation is one of Tiger Woods. He has chosen to avoid weighing in on this subject perhaps due to his loyalty to a club where he has won four major championships. He is not alone in his silence. The vast majority of the PGA tour has done their best to stay away from the firestorm. Hundreds can protest and picket outside the gates of the club, but a few words from someone as influential as Tiger or Phil would go so much further.
What will it take for this barrier to be broken down? Perhaps Augusta National will quietly allow a female to join when they are not under constant watch and pressure. There have been rumors that golfing enthusiast Condoleezza Rice would make the perfect first member, as she is both female and black. Yet what is being lost is that even when that day comes, many have been content to sit on the sidelines and just let “the tradition unlike any other” simply carry on. Augusta is a private club and is free to decide who it will or will not allow to be a part of it. The sad part is that those already on the inside seem pretty content with keeping a certain segment of the population out.