The world-renowned Augusta National Golf Club is one of the most famous and last remaining true "old boys clubs": in its 80 years of existence, they have never once allowed a woman to become a member. But now they've found themselves in a bit of a jam from which it seems there is no escape. You see, every year they host the Masters Tournament, one of the four major golf championships, and every year they've given memberships to the CEOs from each of the tournament's three sponsors, which are IBM, AT&T, and ExxonMobil. Well, wouldn't you know it, now the CEO of IBM is a goddang woman, Ginni Rometty. OOPS.
The tournament starts next week, and there's been no indication that Rometty has been offered a membership. Augusta is a very private, very exclusive, very secretive club. It's invitation-only and is incomprehensibly crusty about its precious traditions. Members are never publicly identified, but when at Augusta they wear the club's signature green blazers. During the Masters, the sponsors have hospitality cabins at the 10th hole, and in the past the CEO's have worn their green blazers while hosting their important clients there. Is Rometty going to have to walk around accompanied by a guy in a blazer during the whole event? One hopes not.
The club has received considerable public pressure to admit women on a number of occasions, but they've always declined, which they are within their rights to do, being a private club of jackasses and all. They didn't even let a black man join until 1990; we're not talking about folks who are progressive. Billy Payne, who is the chairman of the club and the tournament, has said before that he has "no specific timetable" for ending the all-male rule.
Rometty, who took over as CEO of IBM at the beginning of the year, inherited the Masters sponsorship from Sam Palmisano, her predecessor. IBM's sponsorship of the event is a huge deal. They control the tournament's website, apps, and their entire media center, where they give all the reporters their own laptops. Bloomberg managed to figure out that the last four CEOs of IBM were club members. Though Palmisano was not listed as a member in 2004, and he'd taken over as CEO a year earlier. So it's possible, according to Bloomberg News, that "the club doesn't always extend invitations just as new CEOs take over." If that's the case, it might, might get them off the hook this year. But then what about next year? Rometty will (presumably) still be around. They'll have to confront the issue sooner or later.
So what are they going to do? Will they break with tradition and deny the CEO of one of their most valued sponsors a membership? Or will they break with tradition and finally let a woman into their super secret special he-man woman haters club? Spokespeople for the Masters and for IBM both declined to comment on the issue, and whatever they do, they'll probably do it behind closed doors, as is their tradition. Seeing a theme here? It's very traditional, you see. Patrick Rishe, a professor of sports business at Webster University, told Bloomberg these kinds of clubs are "clever in terms of the language they use and their rule books." Meaning they might just add an exception for top execs of their big sponsors, not everyone.
For her part, Rometty, who does play golf but prefers to spend her time scuba diving, has not spoken publicly about whether she'd even like to be a member of such a stuffy old place. Though it seems she should at least be given the option—after all, it's TRADITION. And she's certainly earned the right to play with the "big boys" in their fancy green blazers.
You'd think that Augusta would be worried about what it would look like to be so publicly dismissive of the CEO of one of their crucial sponsors, but Rishe says they likely don't really give a shit:
It's a private club, and I don't think they're really concerned about how others perceive them. Their ratings will not rise and fall based on how people view this particular topic. Their ratings will rise and fall if Tiger Woods is at the top of his game, if Tiger and Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy or some combination of them happen to be in the mix on the final day of the tournament.
Hmm, yeah, that's true… Unless a certain company that's in charge of their entire technological underpinning and media center decides to mysteriously shut it down in the middle of the tournament, causing a total blackout of information. That might really do a number on their ratings.