2012: The Year Augusta's Outdated Barriers to Women Finally Fell

Illustration for article titled 2012: The Year Augusta's Outdated Barriers to Women Finally Fell

The moment shouldn't have felt so good. All along, we knew the day would come. We knew the chosen women would be so privileged that a golf-club membership and new green jacket wouldn't dramatically improve their lives, much less change the world.

On the list of things that really matter, sexually desegregating Augusta National Golf Club couldn't crack the top 5 million. On the list of things affecting women, the issue resided light years beneath honor killings, a continent apart from equal pay, and a few blocks south of dry cleaners who charge more for blouses than men's shirts.

Yet the August 20 news that Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore had been admitted brought a little smile, an odd comfort. In the 10 years since Martha Burk began a campaign against the club's all-male ranks, her point had steadily gained subliminal power. Recently, it added a wry laugh track.


Before the 2010 Masters, club chairman Billy Payne publicly chastised Tiger Woods for serial infidelity and failed role-modeling. Bear in mind that Augusta National had always linked its defense of a male-only membership to the liberties afforded a private club. Now, it deemed one man's libertine sex life worthy of censure.

At least, Burk was minding her own business. She ran the National Council of Women's Organizations (which welcomes men). Who ever put a golf-club chairman in charge of enforcing marriage vows?

From the very beginning, Burk's adversaries helped her more than anything. One could argue that the first meaningful shot in this battle came from Hootie Johnson, the then-club chairman, and his metaphorical bayonet. If he had practiced Southern charm in his reply to Burk, the story might never have taken flight. He could have invited her to the club as his guest, for a chat and a round of golf. He could have assured her that Augusta National's progressive members, himself included, agreed with her and were working toward the same goal.

Hootie went with this instead: "There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.''


The woman had sent a bland letter, threatening no more than paper cuts, and he conjured up a picture that linked Augusta National to the 18th century and a preoccupation with phallic objects. Game on.

Even as the national media grabbed hold of the conflict, I wanted it to slip away. It was my job to consider the subject, but even being paid to care didn't move the needle much.


Then the opposition came to play. Commentator after commentator said over and over, with ever more volume, that excluding women from Augusta National shouldn't matter. They said only rich ladies, CEOs like Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman, would benefit. So why care? They bitterly demanded an end to the story, mercy from hearing about something so insignificant when there were birdies, NCAA basketball and spring training to contemplate. Rarely will you see such ardent, aggressive apathy.

Did it not matter when black men were excluded before 1990 if ending that tradition served only to put another wealthy man in a green jacket? Did it matter if Jews were kept out of clubs? Steven Spielberg could certainly endure such a snub.


Burk's detractors called her a man-hater, even as she campaigned for women to get to spend more time with the guys. They called her an outsider agitator. The people saying this were mostly outsiders, including one who identified himself as a Klansman.

Augusta National has one voice, the chairman's. The members don't speak of its policies. They're not even supposed to speak of their memberships. The club is Skull and Bones with a huge backyard.


Yet every year, the place opens up to a national audience. The Masters sets Augusta National apart, giving it a mission, to promote and enhance golf. The founders put that in writing. Many other elite clubs disdain the scent of a woman. None flatters itself as a keeper of the game.

Without a high-minded agenda, the Masters would just be an exercise in vanity, the members showing off their fabulous real estate while parading around in their green jacket, briefly allowed to declare their memberships to the world. They need that mission statement to separate themselves from the tacky nouveau riche, to assure that their annual shindig amounts to more than the "The Real Housewives of Rae's Creek.''


Ten years ago, I didn't understand that. I bought the "everybody does it'' argument, as childish as it seemed. I half-accepted that Augusta was egalitarian compared to places like Burning Creek and Pine Valley, which can barely tolerate the scent of a woman. If we couldn't reform clubs that banned women from the main dining room, while welcoming their teenage sons, why pick on the one that had an annual TV gig?

By this summer, though, my apathy had turned to low-grade annoyance. Virginia Rometty, the new CEO of IBM, didn't gain a membership even though her most recent predecessors had. Because of her exclusion, IBM stood a very real chance of being cut out of the kind of deals that germinate at Augusta. Ten years had passed. What was written on that timetable that Johnson passed along to Payne? "Over all our dead bodies''?
The arguments in favor of the tradition had lost a lot of their heft. Somehow, the concern that men can't join certain gyms never reached a panic stage. When Curves becomes a hub of mergers and acquisitions and men who desperately want in are banned, bring on the petitions. I'll sign. It will be a great day for women.


August 20 didn't feel great. It felt pleasant, with a touch of vicarious vindication for reporters such as Karen Crouse of the New York Times and Christine Brennan of USA Today, who had seen the issue with more clarity than I had. The absence of Rometty brought a mild disappointment. It suggested remnants of bayonet paranoia. The good old boys had to do things their way, albeit very differently from the way they had approached IBM chiefs with a Y chromosome.

At that moment, though, all that really mattered was the arrival of women. The pair had little in common with typical women, but a day earlier, none of them — whether average or a former Secretary of State — could belong to Augusta National.


A male relative, a brother-in-law who loves golf, saw the news on his smart phone and told me. He smiled when he said it, more than I did. His 9-year-old daughter, my niece, overheard us but didn't really understand what the news meant. She probably never will. And that's why the moment felt so good.

This piece originally appeared on Sports On Earth. Republished with permission. Read more by Gwen Knapp here.

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So it's not cool to have an all-men's club but it's okay to have an all-women's organization? That sounds pretty sexist to me. Also this country does have equal pay for both sexes, last time I checked some women actually get paid more than men while doing "less work". If a female really feels like she's being "shitted on" in the workplace go complain to equal opportunity, a place where if a man gets sexually discriminated his case gets thrown in the trash.