(WOMENSENEWS)--For a month, I wrestled with the question: Why does Augusta National matter to women? I should know because I work in the golf industry. I write about golf and play it. I love the game's colorful history. I know many of the world's top players.
But for weeks, golf and the controversy at Augusta National have seemed pretty insignificant with a war raging in the Middle East. How could I write about women not being invited to join Augusta National Golf Club when women in Iraq are fleeing for their lives and women in Afghanistan have only recently been allowed to go back to school? How could I pretend that membership at a beautiful golf club in a safe place is important when women still face injustices in our own country that matter so much more?
The very public debate between the club's chairman "Hootie" Johnson and Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, has turned into a circus as the April 7 opening of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National draws closer.
Burk fired the first shot last year when she wrote Johnson, demanding that Augusta National, a private club whose members are the nation's top business executives, invite women executives to join. Johnson's letter to Burk, which he made public, said that Augusta National would not yield to Burk's threat to expose the corporate sponsors who have supported the tournament and helped pad the club's bank account. Long story short, the argument continues, protest permits for tournament week have been requested and everybody from the Ku Klux Klan to Jessie Jackson have weighed in on the club's right to handpick its members.
Club That Invites World to Enter Is No Longer Private
Augusta National has that right. But the conflict at this private club with no women members and a history of corporate support lies in inviting the public to enter for one of the most prestigious public sporting events in the world. It is no longer private if the world is invited and the club profits.
The Masters is one of the Professional Golf Association Tour's four major championships and it generates millions of dollars each year for the Georgia club. The PGA Tour's policy for tournament venues states that the host facility's "membership practices and policies do not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin." By technicality, The Masters is called an "invitational" and not a PGA Tour event, but the PGA Tour has ignored the semantics.
We might not like how private clubs operate but what we can challenge is how corporate America speaks from both sides of its mouth. These companies obviously value the business of women, yet align themselves with a club that denies membership to women executives. It's the attitude that exclusion is necessary that is dangerous. It's not about men's service clubs, or women's fitness clubs, or Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts that warrant concern. It's not even about comfort zones. It's about the exclusion of one to the benefit of another. And sometimes that attitude can be well disguised behind bright, educated leaders in high-rise office buildings.
In defiance to Burk, Augusta National cancelled corporate sponsorship for this year's event, opting instead to pay for its own national television coverage. In past years, such companies as Coca-Cola, IBM, General Motors and Citigroup have been avid tournament supporters, helping the event to grow in prestige and allowing membership at the club to become the most coveted perk in this nation's corporate world. But if women executives aren't even on the radar at Augusta National, what role do women play in the minds of the club's greatest corporate allies?
Corporate Sponsors Sending Wrong Message
Clearly, the issue here is not just about a woman's ability to join a club to play golf with men who don't want her there in the first place. Nor was that the issue when discrimination practices were being shattered with the civil rights movement. It's a human issue and, in this case, corporate sponsors are sending the wrong message by attaching themselves to a club that practices and profits from discriminatory behavior.
If this issue were about the exclusion of a minority group, there would be an outcry and the public wouldn't consider it such a trivial matter. Memberships would be extended quickly to reflect America at a club that includes the nation's top corporate minds. We know the top business superstars are not all white and are not all male. Based on 2002 U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, 46.6 percent of the U.S. workforce was female; 50 percent of those females were in managerial and professional specialty positions; 7.9 percent were among the top ranked in Fortune 500 companies and 5.2 percent were among Fortune 500 top earners. Augusta National, where the average age for members is 72, resembles corporate america 40 years ago.
Companies seeking diverse groups of consumers to buy and use their products send compelling marketing messages. Yet, the lack of respect for women is evident at Augusta National where top-level golf collides with blue-chip influence. The club's members are the same people who are husbands of wives, fathers of daughters, brothers of sisters and sons of mothers. They make you wonder where their discriminatory beliefs begin and end.
Certainly, the corporate world can spend its dollars wherever it sees fit and it's certain sponsorship will return to Augusta National. But for every action, there is a result. If women spend their money and develop alliances with businesses that value their patronage and reward their merits in a corporate setting, those companies will be that much more rewarded. Clubs like Augusta National and like-minded businesses that reflect an archaic corporate arrogance will ultimately lose.
Women face many critical issues in this country and their future certainly does not hinge on Augusta National bringing aboard a female member. But if that day ever comes, it will be a symbolic gesture. While Augusta National sweeps off its front sidewalk for The Masters to begin next week, women will be watching, waiting for a sign that in America, anything is possible.
Lisa D. Mickey, a former associate editor at Golf World and senior editor at Golf For Women magazine, is a veteran golf writer based in Connecticut.
For more information:
National Council of Women's Organizations--
"Rally for Women's Equality"
(Adobe Acrobat PDF format):
"Members of Congress enter Augusta National controversy":
The Official Site of the Masters Tournament: