What Augusta's Decision Means

Marcia Chambers on gender and the future for the home of the Masters

August 24, 2012

Editor's note: After Augusta National named Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as the first women to become members in the club's 80-year history, we talked about the issues behind the decision with Golf Digest Contributing Editor Marcia Chambers.

You've written more authoritatively about discrimination in private clubs than anyone for more than 20 years. Do you take personal satisfaction in this news?

Marcia Chambers

Golf Digest Contributing Editor
Marcia Chambers

It is professionally satisfying. Over the years my reporting on private clubs, Augusta included, for Golf Digest and Golf for Women, the New York Times and other outlets focused on the realities that minorities and women faced when seeking admission to the private club world. This world provides members with access to the corporate elite, and with it a way to advance themselves, their companies and their professions. If you get to the top, you should have access to the top.

Is it a big deal in our culture or nobody's business--just a social note for rich people when there's much more important issues facing women today?

Private clubs use the argument that there are more important issues out there to deal with to turn attention away from their inequities. Folks spend long periods of time at their clubs. They should have equal access to the club life they pay for. Private clubs take direction from clubs like Augusta National. It should set the standard and be a leader. It has not been. Now it has put its house in order, and I expect we will see new efforts at inclusion at other clubs. I don't include the private all-male clubs that host the British Open in this category. As the late, great Peter Dobereiner once said: "The British do not appreciate change, especially from the ladies. They have been soaking in male-chauvinist piggery for 500 years, and so it cannot be eradicated overnight."

Related: Why Condoleezza Rice will fit in well at Augusta National

Your first series in Golf Digest on discrimination in private clubs preceded the Shoal Creek controversy by about a month in 1990--some would say, stimulated the questioning that brought about Hall Thompson's comments. At the time you thought discrimination against women would be addressed before clubs opened to minorities. Are you surprised that African-Americans were made members at Augusta more than 20 years before women?

I would say our three-part series in Golf Digest, "The Challenge Facing America's Private Clubs," prompted newspapers all over the nation to ask questions of private clubs that had not been asked in the past. That is what happened at Shoal Creek in Alabama. At the time, after writing the series, I thought the women's issue would be easier to solve because women had long been part of country-club life, and I believed--wrongly, it turned out--that would help them to achieve equal access to the golf course. After I finished the research for my book, The Unplayable Lie, the Untold story of Women and Discrimination in American Golf, I realized women would face deeper issues because club life, at its core, is based on marriage. Husbands also had a say--a big say--in how membership policies developed, especially when it came to them. This makes a huge difference for wives seeking full access. It is an issue still unresolved today in many clubs.

As for black members, which is what they were called back in 1990, when Augusta accepted its first minority male, that event happened in the immediate aftermath of Shoal Creek. The last thing Augusta National wanted was for its television sponsors to flee as they had at Shoal Creek the month before. Having an African-American male in a club is easier than having a woman member. Males were automatically given full access to the golf course. And, as you know, before Augusta accepted its first African-American male, the club had a dismal record with regard to race relations, especially when it came to professional golfers. It now has a number of African-American members.

Arthur Ashe once told us,"Tokenism is fine as a first step." How do you think the presence of two women among the Augusta National membership will change things?

I do not view the acceptance of two women at Augusta as tokenism. Tokenism usually starts with one. I think Billy Payne, the current chair of Augusta National, has a list. Women are now at the pinnacle of power in the corporate world, and this standard of excellence is a quality recognized by Augusta.

Were you surprised that Ginni Rometty, president and CEO of Masters sponsor IBM, didn't get in, especially when predecessors have been offered membership?

What I want to know is whether IBM told Billy Payne, "She gets in, or it's the highway for us." I do not know how IBM could live with this insult, because no matter how you slice it, that's what it is. She is still not in, while her Augusta sponsor counterparts at AT&T and Exxon-Mobil are members. I suspect a deal was made, a deal that admits Rometty at a mutually agreed-upon date.

You once said you supported the rights of single-sex clubs, but you thought Augusta National was different--that because of its place in the game, it needed to be held to a higher standard. Explain.

No, not a higher standard, just a different, more public standard, one that reflects the reality that Augusta, in hosting the Masters, one of golf's four majors, is the public face of the sport. You can't have it both ways though Augusta has tried. What sponsors supporting tournaments at exclusive clubs are really doing is thumbing their noses at their customers who believe in and practice equality, Susan K. Reed, former editor of Golf for Women, told me this week. At most private clubs, men can find a way to play with men in traditional foursomes. Keeping women out, or defining their tee times, or their grill access or any other set of controls on their time at the club, is a whole other issue.

Related: Why a club's membership matters

Many women--from Margaret Mead to Condi Rice to Marcia Chambers -- have defended single-sex organizations. What's the difference between race and gender in this regard?

I don't think there is a difference. There are many African-American single-sex and single-race organizations and many female-only or male-only organizations. They are legal, they are protected by the First Amendment, and they are thriving. But they are not a for-profit commercial entity such as Augusta National Inc., a corporation that runs a multimillion dollar golf tournament whose proceeds are used for their own and the Masters advancement and probably falls under the state of Georgia's business laws. Every year Augusta National puts on what is arguably the most important public golf tournament in the nation. Augusta should set the standard, but for too long it has tied itself in knots over agonizing membership issues that it should have found a way to solve long before 2012. Perhaps if it involved its members it would have come up with a solution long ago. But it tends to keep its members out of these discussions. Bobby Jones, Augusta's president in perpetuity, played with the best women amateurs of his day. I think were he alive today he would be delighted by this news.

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