Augusta National’s decision to admit women can certainly be viewed as a step in the right direction. Yet when the reasoning behind the decision is closely examined, this historic event loses a bit of its luster. Augusta National chairman Billy Payne made this decision primarily for political reasons. The club did not suddenly have a change of heart and wish to welcome women with open arms. Their arms were twisted, and they quietly acquiesced in order to save face and keep one of their major corporate sponsors.
Georgia’s Augusta National first opened in 1932. The private club did not ask its first black member to join until 1990. The club’s ‘no female’ policy has come under increased criticism in recent years; while Augusta National retains all of the rights and privileges of a private club, it also serves as host to the biggest major championship each year, the Masters Tournament, which generates millions of dollars in television revenue as the highest rated golf telecast. So the question has always been, how can a club that highlights itself in such a public way remain protected as a private entity that is allowed to maintain policies that are viewed as discriminatory?
The controversy reached its peak in 2003 when Martha Burk, then chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, led a protest outside the gates of the club during the Masters Tournament. In response to the protest, Hootie Johnson, who at the time served as Augusta National chairman, famously quipped that women might someday be able to join, “but not at the point of a bayonet” (The Guardian).
The change in policy occurred now, rather quietly, in large part because the club was recently faced with a difficult situation. IBM is one of only three corporate sponsors of the Masters Tournament. The four previous CEOs of the company had all been asked to join Augusta National. But on January 1, 2012 IBM selected a woman as its new president and chief executive officer, which left the club’s leadership with a dilemma. They could keep their ban on women and risk alienating one of their largest corporate sponsors, or they could consider changing their policy.
While I am certainly pleased that this ban against women has finally been lifted, I still see so much wrong with this privileged system as a whole that it is difficult to truly mark this as a victory of any significance. For one thing, the fact that this policy change is just now occurring speaks volumes. For another, the decision doesn’t change much. Women were previously allowed to play the course as guests of members. Simply inviting two women to join won’t change the fact that women will remain marginalized in this elitist club, as will other minorities. Augusta will not suddenly go out of its way to ensure that club membership is diverse. So while this policy change is a step in the right direction, it’s a very small step indeed.