The appointment of a chief executive at IBM has revived the debate over Augusta National’s all-male membership just one week before the Masters.
IBM hired Virginia Rometty as its chief executive this year, which could mean a break in tradition if the Augusta country club sticks to its history of never having a woman as one of its roughly 300 members.
The last four chief executives of IBM all belonged to the club. However, a woman has never worn an Augusta green jacket since it opened in 1933.
“I think they’re both in a bind,” said Martha Burk.
It was Burk who led an unsuccessful campaign 10 years ago for Augusta to admit a female member, demanding that four companies drop their television sponsorship because of the discrimination. Hootie Johnson, club chairman at the time, said Augusta would not be pressured to take a female member “at the point of a bayonet.”
“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 National declined comment, keeping with its policy of not discussing membership.
Billy Payne, who ran the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, took over as club chairman in 2006. He said that day the home of the Masters “has no specific timetable” for admitting women. The question was raised at the 2007 and 2010 Masters, and both times, he said membership issues were private.
Rometty has succeeded Sam Palmisano 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 Gerstner, John Akers and John Opel.
Johnson wound up doing away with television sponsorship for two years to keep the Masters’ corporate partners out of the fray.
Burk doesn’t believe it should be that simple this time.
“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.”
IBM has not commented publicly.
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.