The old gents, the members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh
Golfers, they do not care. They gathered last week in their
creaking clubhouse, dressed almost to a man in checkered coats
and striped shirts and club ties, wondering what the newest
American fuss was all about: equal access for women, in golf of
all places. "We're a boys' club, always have been," said Ian
Brooks, a member of Muirfield, as the Honourable Company is known
to common folk. "Women are welcome as guests, they may play
anytime they like, they have a lovely changing room, but the club
is for men. What could possibly be wrong with that?"
This is an article from the July 29, 2002 issue
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, also all-male,
runs the British Open. It holds the world's oldest golf
championship at various clubs in the British Isles, some of
which are men-only, including Muirfield and next year's site,
Royal St. George's, and the 2004 address, Royal Troon. There are
women's clubs in Great Britain, too, and there are no outside
agitators trying to integrate them. The R&A members have heard
about the uproar in America--the lady in Washington demanding,
by letter, that Augusta National accept women, and the Augusta
National chairman responding that change at his club will not
come "at the point of a bayonet"--but they find it baffling.
They gathered at Muirfield last week for the golf. "What you're
seeing out there is a crowd coming to watch the championship;
there are no restrictions," said Peter Dawson, the secretary of
the R&A. "Muirfield is one of the finest courses we have. We
have no apology."
A story last week in a London broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph,
cited two "middle-aged ladies" admiring Sergio Garcia: "'What a
face,' said one. 'And he has such a nice bottom. I just want to
give him a kiss.'" The writer concluded the story with a tart
little kicker: "That, of course, is the real reason women will
never be members here. It might start with Garcia, but who knows
where that sort of behavior would lead?" The writer could have
been a man, but she wasn't.
If you're tempted to say the flap over women getting into men's
clubs is another modern media firestorm, you're correct. In
April, during the Masters, USA Today carried a story quoting
Lloyd Ward, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and one of six
African-American members of Augusta National, as saying, "You've
got to have a broader membership, and that includes women."
Yes, you've heard this all before, when the issue was race.
Augusta National accepted its first African-American member
under duress, forced to integrate because of a single comment
from a minor golf power broker, Hall Thompson. In 1990 the PGA
Championship was headed to Shoal Creek, in Birmingham. In an
interview with a Birmingham newspaper, Thompson, Shoal Creek's
founder and an Augusta National member, said, "We don't
discriminate in any other area except for blacks." It was as if
he were trying to sell newspapers.
A frenzy ensued, and within weeks Shoal Creek had an honorary
black member, Louis J. Willie, his $35,000 initiation fee waived.
Soon after, Augusta National accepted Ron Townsend as its first
black member and the USGA, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America
adopted language in their bylaws saying clubs that wanted to host
their tournaments could not discriminate on the basis of race or
religion or sex. (None of the groups bothered with language to
include homosexuals or the handicapped.) The concerns of the
sporting press were assuaged, at least for a while.
Then came this year's Masters and Ward's comment in USA Today,
which was read by a woman in Washington named Martha Burk, whose
software inventions made her wealthy enough to become the unpaid
and full-time chairman of a group called the National Council of
Women's Organizations, representing about seven million women.
(In their private conversations Augusta National officials deride
her as a "Washington lobbyist.") Burk, not a golfer, was
surprised to read that Augusta National had no female members.
Normally, her group is more concerned with bigger issues--domestic
violence, for instance. But on June 12 she sent a brief, private
letter to William (Hootie) Johnson, chairman of the Augusta
National Golf Club.
"We know that Augusta National and the sponsors of the Masters do
not want to be viewed as entities that tolerate discrimination
against any group, including women," Burk wrote. "We urge you to
review your policies and practices in this regard and open your
membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the
tournament is staged next year."
Nearly four weeks later Johnson issued a lengthy public response.
"We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case,"
Johnson said in a written statement. "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."
You can't get Johnson to elaborate. His secretary refers all
inquiries to Glenn Greenspan, Augusta National's director of
communications. Greenspan refers all inquiries back to Johnson.
Some Augusta National members and officials said last week that
Johnson had been making plans to admit a woman to the club but
that Burk's letter set back the timetable by as much as four
years. Ward, while maintaining that he is not privy to the inner
workings of Augusta National, said carefully, "The thing we want
is progress. There's activity. But there are not a lot of people
who will change when forced to change. They have to find their
Burk, a 60-year-old Texan, was happy to talk. "I think there are
very strong parallels to Shoal Creek, and I expect the outcome
will be the same," she said. "I respect Mr. Johnson's position as
the chairman of Augusta National, but I take him less seriously
now because his response was less serious and more immature than
I expected. I do get a kick out of his nickname. I was called
Hootie by my brothers and cousins as a girl. I think it's kind of
cute, but it's a little hard to take a Hootie as seriously as you
would a William or a Bill."
After reading Johnson's public statement, some high-ranking golf
officials, as well as corporate executives at Citigroup,
Coca-Cola and IBM, the three corporate sponsors of the Masters,
wondered what Johnson was doing. Several officials said Johnson's
letter made matters far worse. In their brief public responses,
two of the sponsors put out statements distinguishing between the
Masters and the club that runs it. (Citigroup declined to
comment.) The PGA Tour did the same. But in the corporate offices
of one of the sponsors, executives are already acknowledging that
the distinction will not fly with the public.
A membership at Augusta National is, for a few hundred business
titans, the ultimate perk, but the conflicts are many, so few of
these men are talking. The chairman of IBM, Louis Gerstner, a
member of Augusta National, did not respond to calls last week.
Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., a member of
Augusta National and a Coca-Cola board member, did not either.
Neither did Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner.
By the rules of their organizations, Augusta National would not
be an acceptable site for a Tour or a USGA event. On the back of
the 2002 PGA Tour media guide there's a list of the Tour's
schedule. The Masters is in purple lettering, along with the
three other major championships. The purple typeface indicates
that those tournaments are "non-PGA Tour cosponsored" events.
Every April, 80 or so of the most prominent Tour players compete
in the Masters, and in July they play in the British Open. The
winners are granted a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour. The
winnings count on the official Tour money list. But those events
are not, Tour officials went out of their way to say last week,
PGA Tour events. Asked what "cosponsored" means, Bob Combs, the
Tour's senior vice president of public relations communications,
said, "Maybe that's not the best nomenclature."
At the British Open, Tiger Woods defended the right of private
clubs to admit whomever they like, even if he didn't like the
policies. "It would be nice to see everyone have an equal chance
to participate if they wanted to, but there's nothing you can do
about it," Woods said. Burk, among others, would disagree with
the last part of Woods's statement.
Judy Bell, the only woman to serve as president of the USGA and
who is often cited as a potential Augusta member, agreed with
Woods. She has no problems with the British men's clubs because
they are open in their discrimination. She is a member of a
women's golf club, St. Rule, in St. Andrews. She would like to
see Augusta National accept women, when the club is ready. "But
it has to be at the right time, in the right setting and in the
right spirit," she said.
Augusta National is one of about 20 prominent all-male golf clubs
in the U.S. but the only one that opens its doors to the public
one week a year. Pine Valley, considered to be the best course in
the country, is a men's club but hosts no major tournaments.
Still, David Fay, the executive director of the USGA, resigned
his membership there a few years ago. "As a hired hand of the
USGA, which seeks to be inclusive, I thought it sent out a mixed
message for me to belong to a U.S. club that admits only men,"
Fay said. He feels differently about British clubs; he is, in
fact, a member of the R&A. He'd be pleased to see Augusta
National consider accepting women. "They are both a club and a
major golf organization," Fay said. "I defend the right of free
association, but I think that right is altered if you have a very
public and very profitable event once a year. When the USGA and
the R&A were having differences in club regulations, Hootie
Johnson said, 'Boys, you have to rise above principle.' I think
that was wise counsel to us, and it might be useful for him to
remember that now."
If the court of public opinion doesn't settle the issue, a court
of law could. "It would be a very tough case to make, but you
could argue that Augusta National, though a private club, is so
connected with the Masters, a public tournament, that the club is
subject to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which would require the
club to prove it is nondiscriminatory," says Dan Coenen, a
University of Georgia law professor. "The circumstantial
evidence--hundreds of male members, no female members--would
suggest it has been discriminatory."
The issue raises all sorts of emotions in some people and in
others none at all. Late Saturday night Ernie Els was the last
player to exit the Muirfield clubhouse, leaving behind the
security men and the cleaning women. Avril Hill was running a
vacuum cleaner through the grillroom. "Whether the club is just
for men, just for women, it doesn't interest me at all," she
said. She bent over to pick up a sugar wrapper. "I really
couldn't care less."
And So Does He
Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson (left) responded, in
part, to Burk's letter with these zingers:
WE WILL NOT be bullied, threatened or intimidated.
WE DO NOT intend to become a trophy in their display case.
WE HAVE ADVISED Dr. Burk that we do not intend to participate in
such backroom discussions.
WE WILL NOT make additional comments or respond to the taunts
and gripes artificially generated by a corporate campaign.
SUCH A CAMPAIGN would attempt to depict the members of our club
as insensitive bigots....
OUR MEMBERSHIP ALONE decides our membership--not any outside group
with its own agenda.
club and the tournament will not fly.
USGA and "rise above principle."