Golf. It's one of the final strongholds of old, white men and country club culture—these things go hand in hand, after all. Occasionally, yes, a superstar of a non-white race (and sometimes a different gender) is able to permeate the barriers. But people like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie are the exceptions, not the rule, and that's part of why they're so celebrated (along with talent) and sometimes also censured (part of that involves non-golf-like behavior on the part of Woods, of course). Generally, however, the world of golf is placid. Calm. Manicured. Largely white and male, and apparently happy to be so. But every once in a while someone stops and says, Wait a minute, is this really how it should be?
The battle heating up once again in this otherwise peaceful world is over the Masters Tournament, of which IBM is a sponsor, a much-desired place to be, given that the tourney draws pretty much "every CEO in America," according to MSG Sports president Scott O'Neil. But IBM's CEO, Virginia "Ginni" Rometty, is a woman, the first female CEO IBM has had. And no woman has been offered membership into Georgia's Augusta National, where the Masters take place, since it was founded 80 years ago.
"Historically, the club has offered a membership to the CEO of IBM, allowing him to don the club’s green member blazer," writes Bloomberg BusinessWeek's Scott Soshnick. But with the case of Rometty, no blazer has been offered (that we know of). In a press conference Wednesday, Augusta National's Billy Payne "boasted Wednesday about his club’s progressive approach to growing the game of golf globally and about pursuing younger participants," writes Barry Svrluga in The Washington Post. Yet Payne declined to answer any questions about whether the club will now, or ever, admit a female member, saying that the issue of who is offered membership is "subject to the private deliberation of the members." IBM is keeping quiet as well, apparently afraid to jeopardize their "much-desired sponsorship" by fighting for Rometty's membership, despite the last four (male) IBM CEOs being members.
Seems pretty blatantly sexist. Yet, as BBW's Soshnick writes, this is "business"—big business:
The status, visibility and reach of sponsoring the highest- rated golf major is too valuable for IBM to criticize the all- male membership -- or anything else -- at Augusta National, which limits television commercials to four minutes an hour, about half of most tournaments, and allocating all of that time to sponsors, according to sports and marketing executives.
ESPN's Bob Harig calls Augusta National's behavior an opportunity lost. A total of 11 questions about whether women would ever be allowed in the club were asked to Payne at Wednesday's press conference. Payne insisted on playing the secretive "Skull and Bones" this-is-my-business-not-yours game. Per Harig, questions and answers like this prevailed:
And so came this question: "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 club?''
And the answer: "Once again, that deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it," Payne said.
Sound staunchly old-fashioned, and definitely old-boys' club? Maybe that's because even the controversy itself is not new: In fact, it's a decade old. In 2002, activist Martha Burk demanded the club allow female members, an endeavor supported on the pages of The New York Times and bringing criticism to then executive editor Howell Raines. As Sridhar Pappu wrote in the New York Observer that year:
Lately, Augusta National—where Tiger Woods became the first African-American champion only seven years after the club itself admitted its first black member—has had all sorts of bad press. USA Today, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have all devoted considerable column inches to the matter.
But it’s been The New York Times that has prodded and pulled the story, refusing to let it slip from the table of conversation. From its front-page features examining Mr. Woods’ place in speaking out about the matter to its strongly worded editorials, the paper has made women and Augusta the biggest sports-and-society story of the year.
What’s more, the energy of The Times’ effort on the Masters story has illuminated certain new priorities—and a swift aggressiveness—that have taken hold at the paper under executive editor Howell Raines, who’s now in his second year.
It's a decade later, and there are still no female members of the club (women are allowed to play there, now and again). But now we have this lovely backdrop of certain people comparing women to caterpillars and discussions of wars on women and how out-of-touch a certain set of older, white men seem to be. So things could play out differently this time—if someone gets the nerve to do something different. For now, the cost of aligning oneself with an organization that appears to be behaving with blatant sexism seems a cost IBM is willing to pay for the chance to remain in the power sponsorship position of the Masters. Which is, as Harig puts it, "a shame, really."
Rometty, for the record, does play golf, according to IBM, though "not frequently." But then, why would she?