I don’t play golf, but I love the Masters, the historic tournament held every April since 1934 at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club. The online video stream makes for great at-work viewing: Largely silent except for classical music and whispered commentary, the action moves slowly enough for concentration, but it’s easy to tune in for the moments of drama.
This relatively small sporting event provides better online coverage than other major professional leagues in part because tech giant IBM is one of the Masters’ three primary corporate sponsors and manages its web presence. As a marketing strategy, the sponsorship is a nice way for IBM to remind viewers of both its blue chip corporate pedigree and its next-generation tech chops.
But all is not so rosy for these partners: Augusta, a private club, has a history of problems with inclusion, and unresolved tensions about its standing refusal to allow women are casting a black shadow over this year’s tournament and its backers.
Augusta gained its first black member in 1990 after controversy rose around white-only clubs participating in Professional Golf Association tours. That allowed the club to maintain some face when Tiger Woods set the current Masters scoring record in 1997.
Racially integrated, Augusta’s membership remains a bastion of gender segregation, despite controversy around the position, notably when then-club Chairman Hootie Johnson engaged in a war of words with Martha Burk, then-Chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, in 2002.
"It's the right thing to do," golfer Woods said then of allowing female members, predicting that there would be at least one by the next year’s Masters. "[Hootie] would have done it anyway over time.”
Augusta did not move forward in 2003, or the nine years that followed.
IBM did, however, tapping long-time executive Virginia Rometty, who masterminded the company’s moves into cloud computing and enterprise solutions, as its CEO last fall. Traditionally, IBM’s chief executive is invited to become a member of Augusta. As this year’s tournament approached, the worlds of golf and gender politics enjoyed an uncomfortable overlap as they waited to see if the club would take any steps to welcome Rometty, or merely acknowledge the awkwardness.
When the club welcomed reporters to its inaugural press conference on Wednesday, however, it had said nothing and had nothing to say, insisting that membership questions are private and that they would be no comment on the matter. IBM, too, has offered no comment on whether its CEO—who reportedly prefers scuba diving to golf—would like to be a member, or if she thinks women should be members.
That hasn’t stopped others from chiming in—President Obama, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, even Callista Gingrich, the wife of former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich have all said that Augusta should admit women. Golf fans have made the same argument: At a time when golf as a sport is falling in popularity across the country, what does the anti-woman stance of the country’s most iconic golf club say to women, who make up half the country’s potential golfers?
The complacence on the part of the male golfers attending also speaks volumes; many observers suggest the fastest way to create change at Augusta would be through a players’ boycott. Their willingness to play in a facility that bars women without demanding change—remember Woods’ faulty optimism in 2002—allows the situation to continue. The players perhaps fear to cross the organization behind the most important tournament in their sport, but it’s hard to imagine the Masters succeeding without the world’s top golfers.
The general atmosphere around the issue is embarrassment—the Augusta spokesperson I asked about the membership issue predictably declined to comment, and also wouldn’t speak to the club’s history or it’s role in golf today. When a story is so distracting that media representatives can’t talk about the good things at your organization, you’ve got a problem.
Thus far, though, IBM and the tournament’s two other major sponsors, AT&T and ExxonMobil, have escaped the public pressure that forced the Masters to be broadcast without commercials in 2003 and 2004, allowing them to avoid commenting on the controversy. The silence on this issue reflects badly on the sponsors and the players.
Perhaps the companies know something we don’t—Augusta’s current chairman referred to Rometty as a “named candidate” during his press remarks, suggesting she's under consideration to join the club. Perhaps the club is just moving slowly to integrate its membership and doesn’t want to risk the good press that would likely accompany the news that female members are under consideration—or the bad press that might accompany their rejection.
But corporate sponsors of the Masters have nothing to lose. The situation recalls a story about Coca Cola and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1964, when King won his Nobel Peace Prize, his hometown of Atlanta invited local luminaries and business leaders to a dinner in his honor. Given the racial politics of the era, few agreed to come. With the city’s reputation on the line, the Mayor contacted J. Paul Austin, the CEO and chairman of Coca Cola, who agreed to host a meeting of the city’s business leaders.
“It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner,” Austin said. “We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”
IBM is an international business; it does not need the Masters or Augusta National. Augusta National ought to decide whether it needs IBM—and its CEO. The club seems to be waiting to get on the right side of history at a time when no one will notice, but if they wait that long, no one will notice because no one will care. I’ll certainly be tuning into something else this weekend.