It’s been nine years since Augusta National Golf Club emerged largely unscathed from a battle with feminist activist Martha Burk, who led a protest outside the club’s signature event, The Masters, over its policy forbidding female members. But in two weeks, the club may be forced into the 20th — er, 21st — century, thanks to IBM’s decision to make Ginni Rometty its first female CEO earlier this year. Rometty’s promotion has the club facing quite the dilemma, as Bloomberg reports:
As Augusta National Golf Club prepares to host the competition next week, it faces a quandary: The club hasn’t admitted a woman as a member since its founding eight decades ago, yet it has historically invited the chief executive officer of IBM, one of three Masters sponsors. Since the company named Rometty to the post this year, Augusta will have to break tradition either way.
Change comes slow at Augusta, a club that clings to tradition proudly and loudly, even if that tradition is full of discrimination. The first black player won his way into The Masters field in 1975, but Augusta ignored outside pressure to admit a black member for another 15 years.
Its response to women has been the same. It trudged on in the wake of the Burk protests, winning over golf fans (equality be damned) by airing the tournament with limited commercials after she pressured sponsors to pull out. Just last year, it banned a female reporter from entering the players’ locker room, drawing protests from male and female journalists alike.
Rometty’s situation, though, gives her leverage Burk never had. The CEOs of the other two Masters sponsors, Exxon Mobil and AT&T, are both members, and they’ll both be donning the club’s signature green jackets next week. If Rometty isn’t allowed to join them (and given Augusta’s history, she probably won’t be), it will send another message to the 6 million American women who play golf and countless others who watch it that even if they are capable of breaking every last one of corporate America’s glass ceilings, they aren’t capable of playing golf with the boys.
The Masters, as CBS likes to remind us, is a “tradition unlike any other.” This year, though, Augusta has a chance to break with one tradition it should have ended a long time ago.