During its 71-year history, the Augusta National Golf Club has made many contributions to the game. First and foremost, of course, is the staging of the Masters.
Now circumstances have presented the club with an opportunity to help golf take a giant step forward. We take the club’s implied intention to invite a woman to join its membership at face value. By following through with that step, without delay, the club can do a great service to the game. Otherwise, the gender issue will continue to unnecessarily occupy time, conversation and news space – all to the detriment of golf.
We support a private club’s right to choose its membership. Like many in golf, we are disappointed that the National Council of Women’s Organizations, spearheaded by Martha Burk, chose to single out Augusta National and the Masters. We understand Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson’s resentment at having club policy be influenced by outsiders.
But the truth is, the episode has given golf a black eye in the minds of the general public. It is not in the game’s best interests that the controversy be allowed to fester. Despite the heightened interest in golf thanks to Tiger Woods, participation remains stagnant. Golf’s powers-that-be insist that they want to “grow the game,” but actions such as contesting Casey Martin’s use of a cart, restrictions on so-called “hot” drivers and now Augusta National’s refusal to immediately offer membership to a woman suggest otherwise.
Each of those examples, of course, have technicalities and nuances about which non-golfers or occasional golfers are uninformed. What they see is an elite class of weathy, arrogant white males who want to keep golf to themselves, running it as if they were still living in the 1930s.
It’s an unfair characterization. In the case of Augusta National, the club has been a generous supporter of The First Tee and a contributor to a shelter for battered women in Augusta. Johnson has been a lifelong champion of civil rights.
But the perception of golf as elitist and discriminatory won’t go away. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Martin in his case against the PGA Tour, as well as the NCWO’s recent battle vs. Augusta National, have exacerbated that unflattering image.
In his book “Golf Is My Game,” Bob Jones tells of a late 1950s conversation with Augusta National co-founder Cliff Roberts about the Masters, which was just beginning to take on the aura and trappings of a “major championship.” Suddenly Roberts said, “Bob, we’ve really got a bear by the tail with this thing. Do you suppose we would ever have started it if we had known where it was going to take us?”
“Frankly, I do not know,” Jones replied.
One can only imagine what Jones – a Harvard-educated lawyer who, after playing with the great English champion Joyce Wethered, described her as the finest golfer he had ever seen – would have made of the controversy surrounding his club’s admission standards and how they relate to women. We’d like to think that his love for the game, and his desire to do what’s right for golf in the context of modern society, would have carried the day.