Augusta National and Women as Members

The issue of Augusta National Golf Club admitting a female member is in the news again. Martha Burk, instigator of the protest over the same issue in 2003, is pressuring Augusta once more. Normally, the CEO of IBM is invited to become a member. IBM has a new CEO, a woman. Will Augusta National stick to something of a tradition and issue an invitation to her because of her corporate status, as Burk says it should, or say nothing because of its own tradition of never having had a female member?

Something might be said about that at a press conferences this week, who knows. What we do know is that Augusta National is a private club and they can admit or deny admission to anyone they care to. That doesn’t mean we have to give them a pass.

Shoal Creek Golf Club became a pariah in 1990 because of its policy of not admitting Blacks, and the PGA withdrew its offer to the club to host that year’s PGA Championship. Shoal Creek could not have gone ahead and run the tournament anyway because the Championship is run by a governing body not attached to the course. The Masters tournament is run by the offending club, so Augusta National would have to be sanctioned via outside pressure by a relevant organization instead of orders given. But it has to be the right organization. The National Organization for Women is not the right organization.

Burk didn’t get that the first time, and she still doesn’t get it. A more effective strategy would be for her to go behind the scenes and lobby the PGA Tour not to recognize the tournament as an official win, not to count the money earned on the official money list, and not to award FedEx Cup points to the winner. She can lobby the PGA of America and the USGA to remove the Masters champion from its list of players exempted from qualifying for the U.S. Open.

This would be a more effective strategy because what drives the Masters is prestige. They’re not worried about money. In 2003 and 2004, the tournament was broadcast without commercials in order to avoid the prospect of a sponsor boycott. What would hurt would be to take away the trappings of prestige that has elevated this chummy invitational to a status co-equal to the title tournaments of golf’s major governing bodies. Even Jones thought the tournament had wrongly outgrown its original nature.

I doubt that will ever happen, though. The good old boy network is too strong. Can you see Tim Finchem even giving this idea more than a millisecond of consideration? In the end, Golf should be asked to explain why it came down hard on one private club for discriminating, and but does not on another. That would be a good question to ask at the U.S. Open press conference this June and the PGA Championship press conference in August.

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