As a club that prides itself on tradition, Augusta National has unwittingly wound up in the middle of a membership debate it thought it was done with nearly a decade ago.
Just seven days before the Masters, no less.
The last four chief executives of IBM – a longtime corporate sponsor of the Masters – have been members of the exclusive golf club in Augusta, Ga. The latest CEO of the computer giant happens to be a woman. Virginia Rometty was appointed earlier this year.
One problem – a woman has never worn a member's green jacket since Augusta National opened in 1933.
“I think they're both in a bind,'' Martha Burk said Thursday evening.
Burk spearheaded a campaign 10 years ago for the club to admit a female member, applying pressure on just about everyone connected with the club and with the Masters, the major championship that garners the highest TV ratings. She demanded that four companies drop their television sponsorship because of discrimination. She lobbied PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem not to recognize the Masters as part of the tour schedule.
But it didn't work.
Hootie Johnson, chairman of the club back then, said Augusta might one day have a female member, but it would be on the club's timetable, and “not at the point of a bayonet.'' The protest fizzled in a parking lot down the street during the third round of the 2003 tournament.
Now it's back, and this time it has a face – Rometty, a 31-year veteran of IBM who has been ranked among the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business'' by Fortune magazine the last seven years. Rometty was No. 7 last year.
What's the next step?
Augusta National declined to comment, keeping with its policy of not discussing membership issues. IBM has not commented publicly, and did not return a phone call Thursday night.
“IBM is in a bigger bind than the club,'' Burk said. “The club trashed their image years ago. IBM is a corporation. They ought to care about the brand, and they ought to care about what people think. And if they're not careful, they might undermine their new CEO.''
Augusta has a new chairman in Billy Payne, who ran the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. When he replaced Johnson as chairman of the club and of the Masters tournament in 2006, he said there was “no specific timetable'' for admitting women.
The question was raised at the 2007 and 2010 Masters. Both times, Payne said membership issues were private.
Rometty succeeds Sam Palmissano at IBM, which runs the Masters' website from the bottom floor of the media center. According to a list published by USA Today in 2002, the previous three CEOs also were members – Louis Gertsner, John Akers and John Open.
As the corporate sponsors became the target, Johnson wound up doing away with TV sponsorship for two years at the Masters to keep the corporate partners – IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup – out of the fray.
Only IBM returned as a TV sponsor for the 2005 Masters. The others were SBC Communications and ExxonMobil.
Burk said it should not be that easy for IBM to hide if the debate gains momentum.
“What IBM needs to do is draw a line in the sand – `We're either going to pull our sponsorship and membership and any ancillary activities we support with the tournament, or the club is going to have to honor our CEO the way they have in the past,''' Burk said. “There's no papering over it. They just need to step up and do the right thing.
“They need to not pull that argument that they support the tournament and not the club,'' she said. “That does not fool anybody, and they could undermine their new CEO.''
Burk said she would not be surprised if IBM pressured Rometty to say she doesn't want to be a member.
“Really, I don't think it's her responsibility,'' Burk said. “It's the board of directors. They need to take action here. They don't need to put that on her. They need to say, `This is wrong. We thought the club was on the verge of making changes several years ago, and we regretfully end our sponsorship to maintain her credibility and the company brand.' “
The debate returns just in time for one of the most anticipated Masters in years. Tiger Woods finally returned to winning last week at Bay Hill and is considered one of the favorites, along with U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy. Eight of the top 20 players in the world ranking have won heading into the first major of the year, a list that includes world No. 1 Luke Donald and Phil Mickelson.
Now comes a sensitive issue that dogged the tournament a decade ago, and might not go away easily.
Augusta National does not ban women. They can play the golf course, but no woman has worn an Augusta green jacket, a status symbol in business and golf. Rometty is said to play golf sparingly. Her greater passion is scuba diving.
She now becomes a central figure.
“We have a face, we have a resume, we have a title and we have a credible reason to do it that doesn't involve Martha Burk,'' Burk said.
Burk said she is no longer chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. She had planned to step down until the first flap with the Masters began in the summer of 2002. Now, she said she runs the Corporate Accountability Project for the council, a project born from her battle with Augusta.