Any day now, thousands of beautiful azaleas, magnolias, and dogwood trees will burst into full bloom at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club.
The manicured fairways will form a lush green carpet as the world’s top male golfers gather for the Masters, one of the sport’s major tournaments.
While that might sound like a pretty picture, this year’s Masters, which will take place April 10-13, could turn ugly. A prominent women’s group said it intends to protest outside the hallowed club during the week of the Masters tournament.
Why? The group is upset that the 300-member Augusta National Golf Club refuses to accept women into its ranks.
Although Augusta National Golf Club has existed for more than 70 years, the issue over its all-male membership status didn’t raise too many eyebrows until last year. That is when Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, sent a private letter to Augusta National Golf Club chairman William “Hootie” Johnson.
Burk urged Augusta National to open up the club to women in time for this year’s Masters. Burk’s letter outraged Johnson, who refused to consider her suggestion. The debate has many people, inside and outside of golf, choosing sides.
A Private Matter
Augusta National Golf Club, cofounded in 1932 by legendary golfer Bobby Jones, is breaking no laws by having only men as members. Supporters say there is nothing wrong with all-male or all-female private golf clubs.
“Private clubs should be allowed to be private,” said golf official Charles Robson. “It’s very similar to a fraternity or a sorority. We happen to be a fraternity. I think it would be great if there were a women’s club across the street.”
Moreover, Augusta National allows women to play the course and attend social events as guests of club members. However, no woman has any say in the golf club’s day-to-day operations.
For his part, Johnson is upset that Burk plans to stage a protest near the club’s main entrance.
“We Will not be bullied, threatened, or intimated,” he said. “There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership. But that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.”
Pushing for Change
Burk said it is unthinkable that Augusta National Golf Club has no women members. Many of the club’s members, she said, run large U.S. corporations that frown upon such discrimination.
“Whether we like it or not, guys are still running this world,” Burk said. “If you don’t believe me, just look at the roster of Augusta’s members.”
Burk says Augusta National, with its high-profile image, should accept female members as a matter of principle. She says the issue is about equality.
In recent months, a handful of members have quit Augusta National to protest the club’s policy, which they consider an embarrassment to the club as well as to the game of golf.
Many believe that it is simply a matter of time before Augusta invites a woman to join.
Pro golfer Nick Price says that Augusta’s members are a stubborn breed.
“They’re ten years behind the times,” Price said. “They should have had a lady member in there ten years ago.”
For the past several months, Tiger Woods, who is trying to become the first player to win three straight Masters titles, has come under pressure to denounce the club for its refusal to admit women as members.
Woods said he understands both sides of the debate.
“Is it unfair? Yes. Do I want to see a female member? Yes,” Woods said. “But it’s our right to have any club set up the way we want to.”
As a woman, Annika Sorenstam is not likely to become a member at Augusta National Golf Club anytime soon. However, the professional golfer is getting a chance to tee off with men next month in Texas.
Sorenstam, who plays on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, will become the first woman to play in a men’s tour event in nearly 60 years. The 32-year-old Swede will compete in the Bank of America Colonial tournament in Fort Worth on May 22-25.
“This is going to be a lot of pressure,” said Sorenstam, the LPGA’s top golfer in 2002 with 11 victories.
In July, Connecticut’s Suzy Whaley will play in the men’s Greater Hartford Open. She qualified for the tournament last year.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the last woman to play in a men’s pro golf event, the 1945 Los Angeles Open.
Do you think it’s the right of Augusta National Golf Club to deny membership to women? Why or why not?