Augusta: Defending champion Tiger Woods will not be the only focus of attention when the Masters golf tournament gets underway on Thursday.
Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the prestigious event, has come under criticism for excluding women members and Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, plans to hold a protest during the Masters.
Burk, who wrote to Augusta National club chairman Hootie Johnson last year urging him to admit a woman, says her protest has nothing to do with women playing golf. “This is about power,” she said.
“If men can keep women from joining clubs such as Augusta National,” says Burk, “they can continue to keep us out of the boardrooms, the corporate executive suites and even the better paying blue-collar jobs.”
The club’s members, who include executives or directors at American business giants such as Coca-Cola, General Electric and Ford Motor, benefited from women’s purchases and women’s labour, Burk said.
Her effort has won the support of other rights groups. “Even though Augusta National says it’s a private club, it puts on the Masters with a lot of public support and input,” said Janice Mathis, vice-president of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
“You can’t benefit from public resources in that way and not be held to public standards of accountability,” Mathis said.
Across the US, Burk’s campaign to put pressure on Augusta National’s corporate members has generated intense media attention and made membership at the elite club a potential source of embarrassment.
The late Thomas Wyman, former chief executive of the CBS television network, severed his 25-year membership in December, saying club chairman Johnson was ignoring other members who wanted to invite women.
Johnson had responded to Burk’s letter with a public statement that the club would not be coerced into admitting a female.
The top executives of American Express and Citigroup, who are among Augusta National’s 300 members, have called for the inclusion of women. Former CSX Chairman John Snow resigned from the club shortly after he was nominated as US Treasury Secretary.
The controversy also raised eyebrows in the US Congress, where a resolution was introduced recently urging that no federal official should belong to clubs that excluded members based on race or sex.
Jeff Bliss, president of the Javelin Group, a sports consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia, said the female membership debate was hurting Augusta National financially, as some companies had decided to skip this year’s Masters.
Burk’s effort to tie corporate membership at Augusta National to the broader issue of discrimination against women had given companies that were already concerned about a weak economy and rising scrutiny of corporate governance another issue to worry about, Bliss added.