April 6, 2012 - The controversy over Augusta National Golf Club's discriminatory membership policy - no women allowed as members* - has come up again during the 2012 Masters week.
The reason? IBM recently named a woman, Ginni Rometty, as CEO. IBM has long been a major sponsor of The Masters, and each of IBM's previous four CEOs (all men) were extended Augusta National membership. But will Rometty receive the same courtesy? That's the question Augusta National chairman Billy Payne has been pestered with all week, and one that he awkwardly avoided. (Augusta National members Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates aren't known for speaking to the issue of Augusta National's exclusionary policy, either. One irony of the brouhaha is that most professional golfers - including most female professional golfers - have no problem with Augusta's policy. But most professional golfers grew up in the world of private clubs, so perhaps that's not surprising.)
The PGA Tour (along with the LPGA and Champions tours) has a policy of not placing tournaments at golf clubs with discriminatory membership policies. But the PGA Tour doesn't run The Masters, Augusta National does.
My own opinion is that yes, of course, Augusta National should allow women members.
Augusta National Is PrivateYes, Augusta National, as a private club, has a legal right to keep out anyone it wants to keep out. The people who run AGNC, and its members, do not deserve to be tarred as bad people; unlike some other clubs that have a no-women policy, AGNC gives women free run of the place as guests. Women - spouses, mothers and daughters of the male members, or guests of the members - can play golf at Augusta, eat in the grillroom, visit the clubhouse, stay in a cabin. (It seems pretty silly to defend a place by saying "but women can go in the clubhouse!" Still, Augusta is much better on this score than many other exclusionary private golf clubs.)
And Augusta National raises millions of dollars for charity and grow-the-game initiatives every year, including efforts aimed at getting more little boys and little girls into the game of golf. It's just that those little girls (at this point) aren't allowed to imagine themselves growing up to become Augusta members.
So, sure, Augusta National isn't breaking any laws by refusing membership to women, and the good ol' boys who run the place have a right to continue enjoying their all-male bastion. It's a private club.
But Augusta Plays a Very Public RoleBut, aside from my basic egalitarian beliefs, here's why I think Augusta needs to invite a female member, and soon: Augusta National may be a private club, but it plays a very public role in the world of golf. And it does that by choice.
Augusta National runs The Masters, the most famous golf tournament in the world; the club is one of the organizations that make up the World Golf Foundation, an organization whose mission is to "develop and support initiatives that positively impact lives through the game of golf ... " Visit the WGF website and you'll see lots of photos of young girls playing golf, and text about efforts to bring more girls into the game. Augusta's influence in golf isn't quite at the level of the USGA or R&A, golf's two rulemakers, but it's close. (The R&A, by the way, also excludes women from becoming members. So this issue isn't even close to only being about Augusta National.)
So Augusta National runs a very public tournament, its plays a very public role in the development of golf and in encouraging the growth of the game. But how can an organization encourage growth in the game while at the same time excluding half the world's population from joining its own club? (That goes double for you, R&A!)
I believe the Augusta National poobahs are very sincere about wanting to grow the game, and wanting to bring more young girls into golf. And I also believe they want to avoid the overtly discriminatory message that would be sent by denying the new IBM CEO membership when her predecessors have received it.
Predicting Augusta's DecisionThat's why I believe Augusta National Golf Club, after things quiet down, will - quietly - invite IBM's Rometty to join. And why, whether Rometty says yes or no (nobody knows if she even wants membership at Augusta), the club will quickly after add another female member, probably Condoleezza Rice, or maybe Nancy Lopez or Judy Rankin.
That's what Augusta should do, in my opinion. And I think they will because I believe Augusta National's membership is sincere about wanting to grow the game.
(*Keep in mind, Augusta National does not have a publicly stated policy of not accepting women members. The club simply is not known to have any female members currently, nor has it had any female members in the past. Given how private Augusta is, and how tight-lipped the club is about its membership, there is always a small possibility that Augusta National already has granted membership to a woman and simply hasn't made that news public. However, as far as can be determined, that is not the case.)