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Will Augusta National have its first female member?

5:52 AM, Mar 29, 2012   |    comments
August National Golf Course
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AUGUSTA, GA - The world that exists on the 365 acres of Augusta National Golf Club is one that most of us would not recognize. It's a place that not only has tolerated discrimination against women for decades, but has actively, aggressively pursued it.

The fathers and sons of Augusta know full well that they have built for themselves not just a golf course but one of the great corridors of power in America, and with chests fully puffed, have fiercely and proudly denied women access to those corridors.

It's a land from long ago, a world where the oldest stereotypes about gender not only exist, but thrive. It's a place where men lead and women follow, even if they don't want to. It also happens to be one of the most majestic and beautiful sports venues on earth, and it hosts one of the world's great sporting events, the Masters. But at its core, it's a place where change comes by the century, not the year or decade, which is exactly as Augusta's leaders want it.

At least that's the way it used to be.

Three of the members of this most exclusive club in U.S. sports, if not in all of American culture, have traditionally been the CEOs of Exxon, AT&T and IBM. They have been invited to be members of Augusta National because they run the three corporations that sponsor the Masters. They've also been invited because they are men.

Last fall, however, IBM made a historic decision. It announced that as of Jan. 1, Virginia "Ginni" Rometty would become its first female CEO. Then, this week, on the eve of Masters week, Bloomberg News Service became the first to ask the logical question: Will Rometty become the first woman to wear a green jacket?

It's possible that the question actually might be moot. It is within the realm of possibility, remote as it might seem, that she's already a member and we simply don't know it yet.

We do know this. Augusta National certainly won't tell us. It's the club's policy to not discuss its membership, a policy busted to bits during the great Hootie Johnson-Martha Burk dust-up of 2002-03, but the club is adhering to it this week, spokesman Steve Ethun said in an e-mail Wednesday.

Rometty did not return an e-mail seeking comment on this topic. Full disclosure: I have known her since we were undergraduates at Northwestern University, and we both now serve on the 73-member board of trustees of our alma mater. She and I have never discussed golf or Augusta National.

I don't blame Rometty for not getting back in touch. The last person to talk in this column about Augusta's discriminatory membership policies was U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Lloyd Ward, one of the very few African-American males to ever be a member of the club. Next week will be the 10-year anniversary of the phone conversation in which Ward told me that he wanted "to have influence from the inside" to change Augusta.

That didn't go so well. His words infuriated then-Augusta chairman Johnson, and it wasn't long before Ward was no longer either the USOC chief or a member of Augusta National.

Ward's comments in my column were read by Burk, triggering the national debate on Augusta's discriminatory membership policy, with Johnson uttering the infamous phrase that he wouldn't be pressured at "the point of a bayonet" to bring a woman into Augusta. But, in 1990, one of his predecessors completely (and correctly) did cave to a similar kind of pressure during the Shoal Creek racial controversy, bringing in Gannett executive Ron Townsend as Augusta's first African-American member.

Rometty didn't seek this controversy, but she's in the midst of it now. If he hasn't already made his decision, Augusta chairman Billy Payne is in quite a bind. He is not simply swatting away journalists' questions, or dealing with a determined outsider, as his predecessor Johnson did with Burk.

No, Payne is dealing with one of his own. Augusta National has been discriminating against women by not allowing them to be members since its founding in 1933. Does he really want that discrimination to continue against the CEO of IBM?

By Christine Brennan

USA Today

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