Augusta National, The Masters’ Tournament and a Continuing “Cult of Power”

CultOfPowerkindle cover

The Masters Tournament — perhaps the premiere golf event of the year — begins in Augusta, Georgia on April 11. Aside from the questions like whether four-time winner of the Masters’ green jacket Tiger Woods will be up to the challenge or not, the Masters’ Tournament has become in recent years something of a lightning rod for its association with Augusta National, a private golf club that for most of its history banned women from its membership.

That changed less than a year ago, but exactly how did that happen?  Martha Burk, the inadvertent champion of getting women into this club, has written a book highlighting the details of that battle, and why part of the focus was on the relationships between major national sponsors like Coca-Cola and General Motors and the venue of Augusta National. How many women will ultimately be permitted to join Augusta is still a thorny question — IBM is one of the major sponsors of the Masters’ Tournament this year, yet Augusta National has yet to invite its CEO Ginni Rometty to join the club.

Burk’s book, Cult of Power, has been updated in time for this year’s 77th annual event. Burk, who has been a guest contributor here at The Broad Side, has provided an exclusive excerpt to peak your interest:

Perhaps because Augusta National seemed a throwback that would surely follow other clubs into the twenty- first century with a little gentle persuasion, confronting the club was not a front-burner issue with me. NCWO has a broad agenda, and we were concentrating on a number of areas such as affirmative action, Social Security, child care, reproductive rights, and equality for women worldwide. Augusta could wait. I threw the clips in a folder for my next steering committee meeting, a month away. A couple of weeks later I met a woman named Rae Evans at a formal dinner in Washington. She told me she was a new member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) board, and I mentioned to her that we were probably going to write to Augusta National about their exclusion of women. She asked me to keep her in the loop.

When NCWO’s steering committee met, the Augusta letter was the last thing on the agenda, and it was barely discussed. None of the steering committee members were golfers, and few followed sports other than Title IX issues. I explained the situation, including Ward’s statement that he was going to work for change, and my conclusion that we could help his efforts along. Everyone said, “Okay, write a letter.” It was so minor and so routine there was no reason even to take a formal vote.

I called Rae Evans and asked for a meeting because we didn’t want to interfere if the LPGA already had some kind of dialogue going with Augusta National on opening to women. I replied that we could do it either way – in quiet negotiations or in the streets – but that we intended to begin with a private letter. Although I truly didn’t believe it would be necessary (I was still assuming the club would do the right thing), I did tell Evans that we were fully prepared to go to the [events’] sponsors. I knew that she could pass this information along to the golf establishment, and again I thought it would only hurry Augusta National’s decision. She suggested that we copy the letter to James Singerling at the Club Managers Association of America, in addition to Lloyd Ward.

It took another month for me to get the letter written and distributed to the steering committee before mailing. It went out on June 12, 2002, and I pretty much forgot about it.

William Johnson
Chairman, Augusta National Golf Club 2604 Washington Road
Augusta, GA 30904

Dear Mr. Johnson:

The National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO) is the nation’s oldest and largest coalition of women’s groups. Our 160 member organizations represent women from all socioeconomic and demographic groups, and collectively represent over seven million women nationwide.

Our member groups are very concerned that the nation’s premier golf event, the Masters, is hosted by a club that discriminates against women by excluding them from membership. While we understand that there is no written policy barring women, Augusta National’s record speaks for itself. As you know, no woman has been invited to join since the club was formed in 1932.

We know that Augusta National and the sponsors of the Masters do not want to be viewed as entities that tolerate discrimination against any group, including women. We urge you to review your policies and practices in this regard, and open your membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year. Our leadership would be pleased to discuss this matter with you personally or by telephone. I will contact you in the next few weeks.

Martha Burk, Ph.D., Chair

CC: James Singerling, Club Managers Association of America CC: Lloyd Ward, United States Olympic Committee

When a letter arrived by FedEx from Augusta National on July 9, I was so busy I almost didn’t open it. It was a terse three-sentence reply:

Dear Dr. Burk:

As you are aware, Augusta National Golf Club is a distinctly private club and, as such, cannot talk about its membership and practices with those outside the organization. I have found your letter’s several references to discrimination, allusions to the sponsors and your setting of deadlines to be both offensive and coercive. I hope you will understand why any further communication between us would not be productive.


William W. Johnson Chairman

I tossed it aside, figuring I would deal with it later, mentioning to my assistant in passing that we got a kiss-off letter from Augusta National.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang. It was Doug Ferguson at the Associated Press, asking about Hootie Johnson’s response to my letter. I was surprised to be getting any press call on this, much less from the AP, because try as we might to get attention for “women’s issues,” the press doesn’t ring very often. Social Security and child care just aren’t sexy enough topics. Anyway, I told Ferguson that I really hadn’t had time to think about it, and that it was only three sentences telling me Johnson didn’t want to communicate with me. Ferguson said he didn’t mean that response, but the three-page press release the club had sent out. I told him I was unaware of a press release, so he read it to me for my reaction. (He also faxed it at my request after the interview, a tremendous help for what was to come.)

We have been contacted by Martha Burk, Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), and strongly urged to radically change our membership.

Dr. Burk said this change should take place before the Masters Tournament next spring in order to avoid it becoming “an issue.” She suggested that NCWO’s leadership “discuss this matter” with us.

We want the American public to be aware of this action right from the beginning. We have advised Dr. Burk that we do not intend to participate in such backroom discussions.

We take our membership very seriously. It is the very fabric of our club. Our members are people who enjoy each other’s company and the game of golf. Our membership alone decides our membership – not any outside group with its own agenda.

We are not unmindful of the good work undertaken by Dr. Burk’s organization in global human rights, Social Security reform, reproductive health, education, spousal abuse and workplace equity, among others. We are therefore puzzled as to why they have targeted our private golf club.

Dr. Burk’s letter incorporates a deadline tied to the Masters and refers to sponsors of the tournament’s telecast. These references make it abundantly clear that Augusta National Golf Club is being threatened with a public campaign designed to use economic pressure to achieve a goal of NCWO.

Augusta National and the Masters – while happily entwined – are quite different. One is a private club. The other is a world-class sports event of great public interest. It is insidious to attempt to use one to alter the essence of the other. The essence of a private club is privacy.

Nevertheless, the threatening tone of Dr. Burk’s letter signals the probability of a full- scale effort to force Augusta National to yield to NCWO’s will.

We expect such a campaign would attempt to depict the members of our club as insensitive bigots and coerce the sponsors of the Masters to disassociate themselves under threat – real or implied – of boycotts and other economic pressures.

We might see “celebrity” interviews and talk show guests discussing the “morality” of private clubs. We could also anticipate op-ed articles and editorials.

There could be attempts at direct contact with board members of sponsoring corporations and inflammatory mailings to stockholders and investment institutions. We might see everything from picketing and boycotts to T-shirts and bumper stickers. On the internet, there could be active chat rooms and email messaging. These are all elements of such campaigns.

We certainly hope none of that happens. However, the message delivered to us was clearly coercive.

We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated.

Obviously, Dr. Burk and her colleagues view themselves as agents of change and feel any organization that has stood the test of time and has strong roots in tradition – and does not fit their profile – needs to be changed.

We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case.

There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.

We do not intend to be further distracted by this matter. We will not make additional comments or respond to the taunts and gripes artificially generated by the corporate campaign.

We shall continue our traditions and prepare Augusta National Golf Club to host the Masters as we have since 1934.

With all due respect, we hope Dr. Burk and her colleagues recognize the sanctity of our privacy and continue their good work in a more appropriate arena.

I was astounded by the tone and language in the press release, but I went ahead and did the AP interview, it’s fair to say with zero preparation. Being only a casual golf fan and knowing some tournaments moved around year to year, I made one mistake: I said if Augusta National didn’t open to women, perhaps the tournament should be moved. I didn’t know, of course, that the club owns the Masters and it never moves, while the other PGA Tour events move every year. Ferguson printed the gaffe, and it was used against me repeatedly by those who disagreed with our position. Though the language differed, the essence was “What is she doing sticking her nose into golf? The dumb bitch doesn’t even know Augusta National owns the Masters.” Just in case anyone doubts that a double standard is alive and well, Jesse Jackson made the same mistake on television a month or so later, and not a single member of the press made an issue of it, or dared call him dumb or uninformed.

My phone continued to ring all afternoon. The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and many others called. I was on the radio and CNN by evening, but I still thought it was a one-day story. Boy, was I wrong. The media firestorm would continue for most of the next year. For better or worse, I would become a central figure in the controversy about power, money, gender, and exclusion that played out on hundreds of talk radio shows, dozens of television debates on all the major networks, and in the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and People magazine, not to mention in kitchen table discussions and family arguments around the country.

Those that didn’t get it thought we were making a big deal out of nothing – what difference does it make if a few rich guys get together and chase a little ball around? As feminists, it went without saying that we knew this was never about golf. It was about power, about keeping women out of places where important business is done, and most of all, about how sex discrimination is viewed in business circles and by extension in society at large. The press knew it, the club knew it, and judging from our e-mails, most of the public knew it too.

Cult of Power excerpted with permission from Martha Burk

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