The Masters golf tournament is this coming weekend, and Augusta National has been given the chance to do the right thing, practically served up on a silver platter. The club should move quickly and get out ahead of a story that is just starting to move.
A decade ago, the all-male club was the target of women's groups who pressured the tournament's corporate sponsors to drop their television sponsorship. At one point, the club did away with television sponsorship and ran the tournament without any TV ads to protect their corporate sponsors from being pressured. According to the AP, Billy Payne, the current president of Augusta, said in 2006 that there is "no specific timetable" for admitting women to the club.
So now the club is back in the spotlight with the tournament approaching, and once again the media is starting to point out its lack of female members. (If there are women in the pipeline to join, the club should say so and consider releasing the names of those on the waiting list in order to end this continuing sideshow.) This year, there's a possible answer to this problem in the person of the new CEO of IBM—which is one of the tournament's biggest corporate sponsors—a woman named Virginia Rometty. She's been with IBM for 31 years and was made CEO on January 1 this year. Rometty was ranked No. 7 by Fortune among the "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" last year and has made the list for the last seven years.
Augusta is famous for keeping its membership private but USA Today published a list in 2002, and the last four CEOs of IBM were included as members: Sam Palmissano, Louis Gertsner, John Akers, and John Opel. It doesn't matter that Rometty plays golf "sparingly"—with a CEO's work schedule, she may not have time—and neither do other current CEOs. The point is, she does play. And it doesn't matter that women are allowed to play the course at Augusta, just not become members. She needs to be a member.
Isn't part of the problem here that there are no all-women's clubs that exclude men as members? If there were, then we'd be fine with single-sex clubs of either type. But when there are only the kind that exclude women, it's unfair. Until Oprah Winfrey or Sara Blakely or Meg Whitman or Sheila Johnson or any number of other high-powered women start their own national golf club, we have a problem.
It would be a great move for the club members to proactively offer Rometty a membership this week, before the Masters, and take the issue off the table for good. It's a win-win for everyone: Admitting a woman would be great for the Augusta and Masters brands—and good for women's golf overall—and it would allow the IBM board of directors to continue their corporate sponsorship and stand behind their new CEO as an equal to her predecessors. Perhaps the four former IBM CEOs who are members could be helpful in convincing their fellow members and Billy Payne that the time has come for a woman to join the club. The PGA has changed with the times—in 2008, it allowed Michelle Wi to play on the tour. Time for Augusta to get with the 21st century, too.
The reason they need to move quickly is because if the women's groups start getting dialed up, the opportunity will be gone as the defenders of "tradition" dig in. Things will get very complicated for IBM at that point: Does the board do nothing, and allow its new CEO to be very publicly diminished compared to her predecessors? If it chooses to do something, there's a problem in that IBM runs the Masters website—does the company drop the business relationship, including the corporate sponsorship of the very popular and beloved Masters, and stand by their new CEO in an acrimonious showdown? I'll bet the board of IBM would find both options very unappealing.
That's what makes the option of offering membership to Rometty—and quickly—a golden opportunity for everyone involved. Let's hope the guys do the right thing.