x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Time and corporate politics finally catches up with Augusta National

An upstart little American company called IBM has a female chief executive, and that fresh and wondrous fact has revived an old nuisance for Augusta National Golf Club at the brink of an enticing Masters.

Augusta National is happy for women to be in the crowd attending the Masters tournament; it just doesn't want them as members.
Augusta National is happy for women to be in the crowd attending the Masters tournament; it just doesn't want them as members.

An upstart little American company called IBM has a female chief executive, and let us pause here for a healthy laugh.

That fresh and wondrous fact has revived an old nuisance for Augusta National Golf Club at the brink of an enticing Masters. The exalted private club that stages the tournament had invited a contiguous string of previous IBM overseers into membership through the years, but those previous IBM overseers all had been male.

Now comes a pickle for the all-male club in the state of Georgia adjacent the South Carolina border, and now comes a little revival of those 10 months in 2002-03, the span of one of America's clunky little political sideshows.

Back then Martha Burk, the seriously serious head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, sternly challenged Augusta National's all-male status with a formal letter, months of vitriol and a frail Masters-week protest noted for drawing crowds of roughly 40.

Back then Hootie Johnson, the Augusta National chairman, responded to Burk with a letter that stated the club might change someday, but "not at the point of a bayonet".

That achievement in obstinacy grew immortal - well, at least for nine years so far. It surprised a nation that, while adoring weapons, had not mulled the antiquated "bayonet" in some time. The term seemed to unearth itself from the 19th century, fittingly.

The sides drew sides, the it's-a-private-club side versus the it's-a-national-interest side. Tiger Woods and other golfers joined the former. The very, very serious joined the latter, and their seriousness fed their undoing.

Nobody laughed when laughter would have been the optimal strategy. Aiming at a musty old club, Burk went for vitriol when she should have gone for mockery, belittling, ridicule, satire and manufactured pity.

The noise - and Burk's case - fizzled because the thing just could not register on many priority lists. With the Masters' sponsoring corporations among her targets, Augusta National protected them by spending a couple of years eschewing most advertising and absorbing those costs itself. In a few years normality resumed, from the advertising to the golf-only focus to the absence of female club members.

The person with the stronger argument (Burk) managed to make the weaker case, which probably helps explain the general indispensability of lawyers. She flatlined partly because of a shrillness that could make even the like-minded cringe.

Essentially, she asked people to believe women suffered from not being asked to join one of the world's most boring groups, a club of timid, monochromatic, stunted men so addicted to sameness they could not even include an African-American member until 1990, all while walking around in unsightly green jackets.

Was this discrimination, or some sort of grand favour?

Even then, women could play the gorgeous course as guests. It hardly tugged enough heartstrings that they could not don one of those jackets; it might have dredged more sympathy if they could.

To deploy seriousness, you need suffering, but nobody had suffered demonstrably in this quirky case. The strength of Burk's argument stemmed from Augusta National as a bad example that, through a lucrative golf tournament, had exceeded private-club status and projected tentacles into a culture rich in impressionable girls and young women with able brains and reasonable hopes.

That kind of vague point needed to ride along on lightness, nuance and humour. It needed good old insouciant mockery, which can move proud men much faster than zeal.

Now comes a Masters so potentially good that it should enthral chunks of six continents. Woods comes in off a victory that magically transformed his recent-months form from something wanting into something building. Rory McIlroy, wildly consistent, returns to where he led after 54 holes pre-implosion last year. Even Phil Mickelson, the three-time champion, enters as refurbished contender. Bright lights - Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Hunter Mahan - hunt a first major title. The field has flung from obscurity the recent Masters champions Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman and Charl Schwartzel.

And now also, in one corner of one continent, comes a Masters with a buried social issue resurfacing after nine years. Now the questions go to the reigning club chairman Billy Payne, the worldly former Atlanta Olympics honcho. Now the year is 2012, and a club with a public interest remains all-male, in the American culture!

Absurdly, nobody knows if the secretive little club already has invited IBM chief executive Virginia Rometty to join, even if many have learned she reportedly prefers scuba diving.

But by now, within a country with a woman running IBM on considerable merit, even the impressionable girls and young women might behold this eccentric batch of men and start laughing.

 

cculpepper@thenational.ae

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