All-male Augusta National overlooks Virginia Rometty. Should IBM complain?

Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters, has offered membership to the CEOs of sponsor IBM in the past. But it hasn't let in new CEO Virginia Rometty, potentially causing problems for IBM.

Jon Iwata/IBM/File
Virginia 'Ginni' Rometty, seen here with previous IBM CEO Samuel Palmisano, has not been offered membership at Augusta National Golf Club, despite the fact that previous IBM CEOs have been.

Behind the scenes at this year’s Masters golf tournament is a matchup that many are watching almost as much as Tiger Woods versus the rest of the field.

The matchup is between the men-only Augusta National Golf Club – where the tournament has been played since 1933 – and critics who have been calling for a female member, particularly since 2002, when feminist Martha Burk took on the club.  

The new wrinkle is that Augusta has traditionally extended membership to the CEOs of its corporate sponsors. Now, one of those sponsors, IBM, has a female CEO – one who even plays golf. 

It's an awkward moment for IBM and CEO Virginia "Ginni" Rometty as they consider what – if anything – to do about the apparent snub. Fighting the feminist cause might not be IBM's job, say some experts, but the company might have to brace for a potential backlash if it continues its relationship with Augusta.

While Augusta National undercut protests in 2002 by eliminating commercials on its broadcasts – thereby removing the opportunity for potential boycotts – IBM could face an uprising that is harder to handle.  

“IBM can decide to support the Augusta National as is, but the tradeoffs are huge,” says Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political scientist at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, who will be using the episode for her course on women in politics.  

"First, it would be a real slap in the face to CEO Ginny Rometty should the Augusta National not admit her as a member," she says in an e-mail. "Second, should IBM continue to be the chief sponsor if IBM does not admit their CEO, IBM should be prepared for a large boycott by women. Women are IBM users and purchasers.”

For its part, Augusta has long been proud of its exclusivity and conservatism. It didn’t have a black member until 1990, when the club extended an invitation to Gannett television executive Ron Townsend, according Orin Starn, a cultural anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a golf historian.

“You would think that Augusta would be very sensitive, even embarrassed about its exclusionary past – this was a club that was very much about Jim Crow for the first five decades of its existence,” says Professor Starn, author of “The Passion of Tiger Woods.” “Apparently, they refuse to discard their anachronistic, stick-to-their-guns mentality.”

But some observers say the outcry over Augusta's member list misses the point. The women's rights movement has moved well beyond caring about an exclusive golf club in Georgia.

“Augusta’s intransigence is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the battle for equal rights," says Jason Maloni, senior vice president of sports and entertainment for Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. "Women have ignored Augusta like Germany ignored the Maginot Line in World War II.”

Others say it's not Ms. Rometty's job to play pioneer. 

“Rometty’s job is to do her best to lead IBM and do a great job at that,” says Justine Siegal, the first female coach of a men’s professional baseball team, the Brockton Rox of the independent Canadian American league. “If she whines about Augusta, it will be taking away from what she needs to do."

"It is up to society and others within IBM to fight this battle over membership,” adds Ms. Siegal, who is now director of sports partnership for Sport in Society at Northeastern University

Perhaps that activism should start within the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) itself, says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas at Arlington’s sociology department.

"Augusta National’s anachronistic apartheid, keeping women out, is best met by a PGA players’ boycott," says Dr. Agger. “It is fine to expect the woman CEO of IBM to force the issue, but the PGA has much more leverage. It is unimaginable that men’s professional tennis players, a thoroughly global bunch, would countenance one of their four 'majors' being held at a facility that barred women or any other group."

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