By DOUG FERGUSON, Associated Press
As a club that prides itself on tradition, Augusta National again is 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 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, who spearheaded an unsuccessful campaign 10 years ago for the club to admit a female member, said Friday morning on CNN she fears Augusta and IBM will work out a "sham solution" to make the issue go away.
"The company has a huge responsibility here not to undermine its first female CEO," Burk said. "If they accept anything less than full member — or resign their sponsorship, which is another option — they're going to undermine their new CEO. And they'll be making a statement that they don't consider her an equal to her predecessors."
Still to be determined is how much traction the topic will muster going into the Masters.
Augusta National, through a spokesman, declined comment in keeping to its policy that membership issues are private. IBM did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Rometty is said to play golf sparingly. Her greater passion is scuba diving.
Hootie Johnson, chairman of the club a decade ago, ignited the controversy back then when he said that while Augusta might one day have a female member, it would be on the club's timetable and "not at the point of a bayonet."
Burk applied 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.
It didn't work. The protest fizzled in a parking lot down the street from the club during the third round of the 2003 tournament.
"We did raise the issue," Burk said on CNN. "If we had not done that, this would not be on the table now."
Not only is the debate back, 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.
The chairman of Augusta National — and the Masters — is 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 three CEOs prior to Palmissano also were members — Louis Gertsner, John Akers and John Opel.
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 in a telephone interview Thursday evening. "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."