Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the prestigious event, has come under criticism for excluding women and Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organisations, plans to hold a protest during the Masters.
Burk, who wrote to Augusta National club chairman Hootie Johnson last year urging him to admit a woman, says her protest has nothing to do with women playing golf.
“This is about power,” she said during a recent stop in Atlanta. “If men can keep women from joining clubs such as Augusta National, they can continue to keep us out of the boardrooms, the corporate executive suites and even the better paying blue-collar jobs.”
The club’s members, including executives or directors at American business giants such as Coca-Cola, General Electric and Ford Motor, benefited from women’s purchases and women’s labour, Burk said.
Her effort has won the support of other rights groups, with Janice Mathis, vice-president of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition saying: “Even though Augusta National says it’s a private club, it puts on the
Masters with a lot of public support and input.”
Across the US, Burk’s campaign to put pressure on Augusta National’s corporate members has generated intense media attention and made membership at the elite club a potential source of embarrassment.
The late Thomas Wyman, former chief executive of the CBS television network, severed his 25-year membership in December, saying club chairman Johnson was ignoring members who wanted to invite women.
Johnson responded to Burk’s letter with a public statement that the club would not be coerced into admitting a female.
Top executives of American Express and Citigroup, who are among Augusta National’s 300 members, have called for the inclusion of women. Former CSX chairman John Snow resigned from the club shortly after he was nominated as US Treasury Secretary.
The controversy also raised eyebrows in the US Congress, where a resolution was introduced recently urging that no federal official should belong to clubs that excluded members based on race or sex.
Jeff Bliss, president of the Javelin Group, a sports consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia, said the female membership debate was hurting Augusta National financially, as some companies had decided to skip this year’s Masters. “We see corporate attendance down 30 to 50%,” said Bliss.
Burk’s effort to tie corporate membership at Augusta National to the broader issue of discrimination against women had given companies that were already concerned about a weak economy and rising scrutiny of corporate governance another issue to worry about, Bliss added.
“In the middle of a war, the last thing that corporate executives want to be showing to their shareholders, the public and the media is that they are enjoying a wonderful golf event at a club that does not accept women,” Bliss said.
So far, the firestorm over the no-women policy has not prompted Augusta National, which opened in 1932 and admitted its first black member in 1990, to change its all-male membership.
Speculation had increased that the club might announce a female member before the Masters, professional golf’s first major tournament of the year. But Augusta National spokesman Glenn Greenspan said: “There will be no announcement before or during the Masters. At some point, a woman may become a member but that decision will be made by the membership.”
The national criticism has not been well received in Augusta, a city of 200,000 people that has profited from the Masters since the first tournament was held there in 1934.
“The city is disappointed,” said Lee Smith, president of an Augusta-based foundation, adding that the good work Augusta National did, including giving millions of dollars each year to groups that aid the homeless and introduce youngsters to golf, was overshadowed by the membership controversy.
Many in Augusta, 230 km west of Atlanta, say Augusta National is a great corporate citizen that has put their city in the international spotlight. “The Masters is the centrepiece of the Augusta image,” said Ed Presnell, head of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
Burk has even drawn the ire of women golfers in the city. “I feel it’s just grandstanding on her part and publicity seeking,” said Elaine Clark Smith, an Augusta consultant who has played on Augusta National’s course.
Smith said she had asked Burk last month to back off the Augusta campaign and give the club time to digest the issue. “She selected Augusta
National because it’s a high-profile club,” Smith said.
Burk, who promises to keep up the pressure on Augusta National after this year’s Masters had finished, has no doubt the club will eventually admit a female. “The only question is when,” she said.