A special guest, who has artfully dodged the press, was sitting behind the 18th green on Sunday at the Masters. Her green chair — at Augusta National “patrons” must buy or bring a specific Masters chair if they want a seat on the grass — was in the second row, where she spent the late afternoon watching the last groups, including Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen make pars on the last hole in regulation to force a sudden-death playoff.
Wearing a pink jacket and a pink pin-striped blouse, Ginni didn’t budge when the duo returned to the 18th tee for the first hole in sudden death. She gave a standing ovation when she heard Bubba had outlasted Louis on the second playoff hole. She looked nothing short of professional and composed — just like you’d picture her. Would it really be so bad to follow the club’s “tradition” and let her in already? She’s been put in a difficult position and she’s not speaking to the press, but can you really blame her? There’s something about this club that instills the fear of God in everyone to the point where people are readily brushing the unpalatable under the rug and walking on eggshells.
Starting on Friday’s second round at the Masters, the was chatter Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, the newly-anointed CEO of IBM, one of the three sponsors of the prestigious, archaic golf tournament, was on the grounds entertaining clients. Thing is, with the controversy making its way all the way up to Washington, where President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney both publicly stated they believe the all-male exclusive Augusta National Golf Club should include women as members, Rometty was likely to make herself scarce.
Now I haven’t read too much about her, but enough to realize she’s a bright, very capable and strong woman, who worked her way up the ranks in the business world to the top of the food chain at a well-respected and omnipresent company. Since the last four CEOs of IBM have been fitted for Green Jackets as a tradition as a quid pro quo kind of deal with the company’s sponsorship of the Masters, according to Bloomberg’s report several weeks ago.
Ginni has earned an invitational to become a member based on her hard work and accomplishments in business and leadership. If the past four CEOs were granted the honor of a green jacket, then the tradition should be passed along to Ginni, the successor of the previous chief exec.
I mean, c’mon, how is this even a controversy? She’s earned the privilege, thanks to her accomplishments in the business world. Oh, and just to set this straight — being a “serious” golfer isn’t a requirement to become a member, but I’m told Ginny enjoys the game.
ANGC has backed itself in a corner with strong criticisms of their membership policy. It’s not just the so-called crusaders and feminists any longer; it’s politicians, golfers, business owners, male journalists and just about everyone who realizes the year is 2012.
Of course, all that whispery reverence becomes pretty silly. The Masters can feel stoned on mysticism and prestige, to the point where Augusta National becomes a reality distortion field, detached from the outside world. This is not heaven. If it’s heaven, it’s heaven with a Hooters around the corner, and a brand new champion named Bubba.
But reality takes its time pushing through the gates here, which is why Augusta National is again confronted with a question that gets elevated as a “cultural moment” but really just sounds absurd in 2012: Why aren’t there any women members?
It’s time to take off those stylish green tin foil hats, turn down the reality distortion field, and acknowledge the obvious: Absence of a female member at golf’s most prominent club—not just a folksy conclave in the woods, but the sport’s best-known stage, a citadel of corporate power, happily monetizing and broadcasting its event to millions—is woefully out-of-date and should embarrass anyone invested in this event.
Gay goes on to say that it sounds ridiculous to refer to the issue as a “debate.” Exactly. It is farcical. That’s why I’m not up in arms or ready to lead protests. Those types of combative demonstrations only set things back. Augusta National is known to do things in their own time, to appear as if they weren’t pressured by outside influences. Eight months from now, don’t be surprised if Ginni Rometty suddenly appears in a Green Jacket, which she was fitted for long ago.
IBM has declined to comment, according to the AP. USA Today columnist Christine Brennan crossed paths with Rometty at Northwestern University. Understandably, Rometty didn’t return either of Brennan’s emails.
As we were reminded about a dozen times on Wednesday during Chairman Billy Payne’s State of the Masters press conference, the club’s membership decisions are private and they do not discuss them. What is this? Skull and Bones? Actually, Yale’s most famous secret society wasn’t even nearly as secretive. And they started admitting women years ago.
A possibility that continues to be thrown around as a possibility is that ANGC has already extended an invitation to Rometty to become the first woman member at the club.
As Gay mentions in his column, “The shame is that it’s preventing it from being a better, more inclusive one. If Augusta can handle a Bubba in a green blazer, it can handle the 21st century. And the 20th.”
You’d think so, wouldn’t you? It’s rather straightforward. I mean, if Bubba can Bagdad, who has the social graces of a sixth-grader with ADD, can done the Green Jacket, then why not women? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer to have Ginni as a representative of the club rather than Bubba.
I remain optimistic yet cautiously skeptical that the club will announce it has changed its membership policy in the near future, but interestingly enough, it’s my male colleagues that are convinced it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.
*Update: OK, I wrote in the comments thread earlier that I’d provide a lengthier response to some points I missed when i wrote this at 3am (I mean, I’m surprised I formed somewhat coherent sentences), but I replied to more than I originally planned. Here’s the deal: Chairman Billy Payne backed himself in the corner when he talked about “doing better” and “growing the game, championing junior golf. Karen Crouse penned an excellent column about the awkward atmosphere at the Chairman’s presser:
Before opening the floor for questions, Payne delivered an opening statement, from notes, in which he acknowledged that the sport’s stagnant growth is a major concern.
To make golf more attractive to a younger demographic, the club already has established a program in which juniors gain free admission to the tournament and participated in the creation of a golf video game.
“Impressive efforts, I hope, but not enough,” Payne said. “We can do better.”
At that moment, Payne’s next breath seemed pregnant with possibilities. Was he about to disclose that Rometty was a candidate for membership? That Condoleezza Rice has been a member for several years — or Louise Suggs, one of the L.P.G.A. founders and a friend and occasional golf partner of Bobby Jones?
Wishful thinking, as it turned out.
“We can be a better partner with the established golf organizations as they address these critical issues,” Payne said. “To that end, we have appointed a very smart and motivated team of members who have been given the charge of determining what more we can do.”
A few minutes into the question-and-answer portion of the news conference, a reporter had an idea about what the club could do. Payne had already answered two questions about the all-male membership, including one about Rometty in which he referred to her as “a named candidate,” which was more revealing than perhaps Payne intended.
“I note your concerns about the growth of golf around the world, and I also note that Augusta National is a very famous club,” Lawrence Donegan of The Guardian said. “Don’t you think it would send a wonderful message to young girls around the world if they knew that one day they could join this very famous golf club?”
Payne’s stock response to membership questions is that such issues are and have historically been a private matter.
“That is a membership issue,” he began, at which point another reporter interjected: “Seems like a mixed message, Billy, is what he’s saying. You’re throwing a lot of money into growing the game and yet there’s still a perception that certain people are excluded.”
A stricken expression crossed Payne’s face. He looked as if he had been struck by the point of a bayonet. He stammered and finally drowned out the reporter’s voice by saying, “Thank you.”
The debate about Augusta National’s membership practices is often framed in simplistic screeds. This is not about breaking up the Boy Scouts or infiltrating anybody’s sewing circles, to use a favorite example from Payne’s predecessor, Hootie Johnson. Of course men and women have the right to gather amongst themselves. There are a couple dozen all-male golf clubs in the U.S.; keeping women out of them is retrograde and a bit silly, but it’s not a battle worth fighting because these clubs truly are private refuges for the enjoyment of their members. Augusta National is a completely different case because it holds such a public place in an international sport.
The World Ranking affects the career of every pro golfer, and any tweaks to the formula can have a profound effect on a player’s fortunes. Augusta National helps make these decisions. The First Tee impacts the lives of millions of kids, and Augusta National’s Jim Armstrong sets policy on their experience as a member of the The First Tee’s board of directors. Payne knows better than anyone else that the chairman of Augusta National is, by definition, one of the most powerful people in golf, essentially a third-party commissioner of the sport. Years ago Hootie floated the idea of a throttled back “Masters ball,” a way to rein in distance gains since the USGA and the R&A seem incapable of doing the job. Such an experiment could be unilaterally instituted by the Masters and have a massive impact on the sport as well as the multi-billion dollar equipment industry. Given the many ways Augusta National members are shaping golf, at the professional and grassroots level, shouldn’t women have a voice, too? This can only happen if they are invited into the club.
I haven’t commented publicly on the issue very much for several reasons — 1.) I had more pressing things to do than read through the usual banal and pointless arguments — Curves! Private club! — and I didn’t feel like being called names; 2.) Enough of my male colleagues were already doing it; 3.) Payne backed himself in the corner in the press conference; 4.) Esteemed politicians are publicly mocking or speaking against ANGC’s archaic practices; 4.) The “controversy” has been so played out UNTIL Ginni Rometty became the CEO of IBM and it’s the club’s “tradition” to extend membership to the person who holds this esteemed position (the past four IBM CEOS are members). Well, Augusta would be breaking its own tradition by not providing Ms. Rometty with a green jacket. As I’ve said, it may have already happened, but ANGC’s control-freak culture won’t break from their message that they call the shots — they command, we obey.
This controversy is unlikely to stop the Masters from being a significant event. The shame is that it’s preventing it from being a better, more inclusive one. If Augusta can handle a Bubba in a green blazer, it can handle the 21st century. And the 20th.
Watson is a
likeable, unpretentiouschampion—”It’s just me. I’m just Bubba,” he said when it was over—and Virginia Rometty is not an inconvenience for Augusta National. She’s a gift. A female power broker, a golfer, atop one of the world’s most prominent companies, where a green jacket has customarily come with the job. It doesn’t matter if Ms. Rometty wants to press her case. All the public relations gurus and crisis managers on earth couldn’t have given this anachronistic club a better opportunity.
It should be so simple. It’s sad that it’s not.
All that said, what a tournament! — how about that crazy finish?
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)