Hiring of CEO revives Augusta membership debate

Associated Press Modified: March 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm •  Published: March 30, 2012
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The stars are aligning. Phil Mickelson won at Pebble Beach, and Rory McIlroy reached No. 1 in the world. And, of course, there was Tiger Woods in Sunday red, a winner again at last on the PGA Tour.

It's Masters time.

But even as the azaleas start to bloom, a thorny issue has returned — the all-male membership at Augusta National Golf Club — thanks to another achievement that took place far away from the fairways and greens. Virginia Rometty officially took over Jan. 1 as CEO of IBM, the first woman to be chief executive in the 100-year history of Big Blue.

IBM is a longtime corporate sponsor of the Masters, and its last four CEOs have been invited to be members.

Next in line, though, is a woman.

For Martha Burk, who led an unsuccessful campaign 10 years ago for Augusta to admit a female member, the solution is simple.

"What IBM needs to do is draw a line in the sand — 'We're either going to pull our sponsorship and membership and any ancillary activities we support with the tournament, or the club is going to have to honor our CEO the way they have in the past,'" Burke said in a telephone interview.

"There's no papering over it," she said. "They just need to step up and do the right thing."

Club officials have declined comment, citing its policy that membership issues are private. At least there has been no mention of a "bayonet," the term used by former chairman Hootie Johnson that ignited this debate in the summer of 2002.

IBM has not returned phone calls seeking comment.

It would seem that something has to give — the club's recent history asking IBM chief executives to become members, or its history of never having a female member since it opened in 1933.

To be clear, Augusta allows women to play as guests during the eight months it is open (October to May).

And the exclusivity of the club is limited in practice. Johnson, during a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, said Augusta National holds four parties a year in which only the members are allowed.

Still, these aren't your ordinary businessmen. The members include Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, CEOs from major insurance companies, financial firms and media companies, including Brian Roberts of Comcast, which owns Golf Channel.

None are women.

What has become clear is that questions about the way Augusta National does business — and whom it invites — are sure to get as much attention as the return of Woods or the emergence of McIlroy.

Anticipation has shifted from who's going to win the green jacket to whether a woman will finally wear a green jacket.

One difference this time around is that Burk can put a face on the controversy, even though Rometty has not said whether she is interested in becoming a member. In fact, Rometty is said to be play golf sparingly. She is more passionate about scuba diving.