Golf’s yearly Masters tournament is an exercise in reverence. If attending the actual event is a pilgrimage, the mere televised experience – dominated by commanding Georgia pines, sun-dappled greens, misty-eyed heroes and long, dark April shadows – is a rite of spring for the lay golfer, and even for many agnostics.
One is always aware, however, that it is someone else’s cathedral. Augusta National Golf Club, which established the invitational tournament in 1934, is a severely limited place of worship. It is among the most private of American golf clubs, with all membership strictly by invitation. Most asked to join are CEOs, politicians or influential figures in the sports world, and all of them are very, very wealthy.
All of them are male, too. Women can play the course as guests, but they have been excluded from membership thus far, which is why the rites have come to include difficult questions about discrimination at the home of one of golf’s four “major” championships, the only tournaments that truly matter to the top professionals.
The membership policy reared its head as a public issue in 2002, when Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, led a loud campaign for change. The club stood its ground and defended its right to discriminate, televising the tournament without commercials to insulate advertisers from the controversy.
The issue has continued to loom like one of those dark April shadows, and it’s grown longer than usual this year. Virginia Rometty, who recently became CEO of tournament sponsor IBM, has not received an invitation to join, although Augusta National has traditionally extended one to IBM CEOs. At a news conference this week, club chairman Billy Payne stonewalled reporters. The questions may persist – even President Barack Obama suggested on Thursday that women should be invited to join – but it’s hard to imagine the club bending. Its legal position is unassailable, and the most direct pressure from women’s groups and the media is simply insufficient to dent its resolve. Augusta National owns its course, runs its tournament, picks its sponsors and dictates its television coverage. It runs its show.
But that is not to say things can never change. There is one card the club does not hold – the players – and if women’s advocates truly want to stop talking and make a difference, they should find a way to influence how this card is played.
The PGA Tour, which exists to facilitate money events for golf’s top tournament players, officially has no say in any of the majors. The U.S. and British Opens are run by golf’s governing bodies. The PGA Championship is run by American club professionals. And the Masters is an invitational tournament run by a private club. The tour sanctions them in its rankings and celebrates their importance, but it does not overly influence how these events are run.
What it does influence is its elite players, and the courses where they play.
Unlike Augusta National, the PGA Tour is a tax-exempt membership organization, which means it is legally sensitive to discrimination laws. For instance, it will never run an event at the Toronto-area National Golf Club of Canada because of its male-only membership policies. Although the PGA Tour does not control the Masters tournament, the barriers could fall at Augusta National if the tour and its image-conscious sponsors are convinced that the membership issue is a significant enough reason for the players to stay away.
A public battle over this issue is the nuclear option, and extremely unlikely. The players love playing at Augusta National. Even if they were persuaded to hold out, the club would be forced to choose between its membership policy or the prestige of its tournament, and it has proven its determination before – potential outcomes might be an ugly attempt to split the players, a phony major played without touring pros, even outright cancellation of the tournament. It would be a dirty stain on both professional golf and Augusta National’s private cathedral.
But if the club sees both a plausible threat and a way to save face, pressure could make the difference.
In the summer of 1990, professional golf had its feet put to the fire when civil-rights groups realized that the PGA Championship, the golf calendar’s fourth major, was to be held at Alabama’s private Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club, which had no black members. The club stood its ground as sponsors balked and the PGA of America, the club professionals’ organization, considered moving the tournament. An uneasy compromise was reached allowing play to proceed, but it was several more years before a dues-paying black member was admitted, and Shoal Creek still hasn’t held another major.
The previously all-white Augusta National quietly admitted its first black member a few weeks later.
Guy Nicholson is an editor in the Comment section of The Globe and Mail.