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Update from Augusta

Predictably, the Masters came and went last week with its usual fanfare of suspense and dramatic moments. Contrary to most predictions, three times was not the charm for Tiger Woods. Instead, this year Canadian Mike Weir, well-known to golf but a newbie to Augusta glory, proudly donned the revered green jacket.

The Masters continued to enjoy its pristinely manicured lawns and white-clad, upper-crust crowd, but it had a few new visitors this year, and some traditional FOAs (Friend of Augusta) were conspicuously absent. As expected, Hootie Johnson, Chairman of the Augusta National, made good on his promise of dismissing the tournament’s long-term sponsors, resulting in the first commercial-free Masters. CBS did its best to fill in the extra air time with lengthy commentary on the developments of each player. The network was also noticeably “masterful” at ignoring the recent controversy regarding the club’s refusal to admit women, despite intense pressure to change its policy, ranging from a recent editorial in the New York Times to the resignations of former CBS chairman Tom Wyman and current treasury secretary John Snow.

As part of her year-long campaign to call greater attention to the club’s refusal to admit women to its ranks, Martha Burke, president of the National Council of Women’s organizations, applied for a license to protest for 200 participants at this year’s Masters and had expected to have a large crowd at the gate of the club. Instead, she had a smaller group of 50 protestors demonstrating outside the club in a parking lot, which was largely dismissed by the club, CBS and its visitors. The protestors’ cause however did not go without effect, as the tournament and the surrounding Augusta area were visited by fewer visitors and noticeably toned-down displays of excess particularly in comparison to years past.

Despite the smaller than expected crowd of protestors and the last-minute no show by Jessie Jackson, one should not count out Ms. Burke and the ladies of golf just quite yet. Despite its rich traditions, many believe golf is simply experiencing the growing pains of what is a natural evolution of the sport. Others still may call it a revolution.

Whatever one’s chosen terminology may be, despite severe resistance, recent signs at the fairways in Augusta and far beyond suggest that the 6 million women who call themselves golfers are increasingly calling for progressive change to this staunchly traditional sport.

In a few weeks, Annika Sorenstam will play in the Bank of America Colonial tournament in Fort Worth Texas, and make history as the first woman to compete in a PGA tour event in 58 years. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Sorenstam called for Augusta National to open its doors to women once and for all, and considers this recent Masters episode representative of not their finest moment. Admittedly however, she does not expect to receive an invitation for membership anytime soon. On the European continent, Vivien Saunders, the former Women’s British Open champion, is calling for Prince Andrew to resign his captaincy of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, as a result of its failure to admit a female member in the club’s 249 year existence.

While resolution to this conflict is not yet visible on the horizon, the recent controversies have at the very least forced golf to re-examine its history and its future. The last time the sport found itself in a similar situation was at the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, a Birmingham, Alabama country club that until then had never admitted a black member. The forever-memorable quote from Shoal Creek founder Hall Thompson that, “We have the right to associate or not associate with whomever we choose,” ignited an international debate that resulted in the club accepting its first black member 10 days prior the PGA championship. In response, the PGA tour decreed that clubs practicing, or appearing to practice, racial discrimination, could not host Tour-sanctioned tournaments. Following Shoal Creek’s “reevaluation” of their terms of membership and the PGA tour’s announcement, many all-white clubs, including the Augusta National, opened their doors for the very first time to black membership.

This time around, the Augusta National finds itself in the center of the debate without the discreet option to follow rather than lead. While there do exist women golfers who are comfortable with the club’s refusal to admit women as a reflection of the sport’s enduring heritage, those who agree to be quoted as so by-in-large seem to represent older women golfers who started in the sport when it was decidedly less modern than it is today. In comparison, many of them argue that there has in fact been progress, albeit not at the pace that some would like. These older female golfers also seem reluctant, at least on record, to go against their male brethren, many of whom first invited and trained them in the game of golf.

Instead, the voices of change are coming from younger golfers and those outside of the sport who are less impressed and dedicated to the sport’s deep traditions. They see what historically has been an ultra-exclusive sport, dominated by wealthy white men, fiercely resisting change that many consider to be vital and inevitable. These women argue that the rules and regulations of golf should fairly reflect the demographics of those actually playing and watching the sport. In addition, they argue that a club that hosts a very public tournament that serves as the pinnacle of achievement for all golfers – women and men, black and white – no longer retains the luxury of privacy but rather must assume the responsibility of leadership and greater transparency.

Change, however, is predictably difficult and mired in delay. It was in fact just a few years past that the Royal St. George’s, an R&A club and host of this year’s British Open, discreetly removed a sign near its first tee that stated: “Dogs and women not allowed.” Not coincidentally, this month’s National Geographic Magazine devoted a ten page spread highlighting the impact of black members and staff over the last ten years at Augusta National and the surrounding community. History will tell us where we will find ourselves in the next chapter, but I for one am placing my bet on this: National Geographic’s April, 2015 edition – a ten-page spread on the Augusta National, highlighting the many contributions of achievements of its women members over the last ten years. Any takers?

April 22, 2003
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