The problem with Augusta National Golf Club’s long history of discrimination against women and minorities is that it becomes a very public place for about 10 days each year when it hosts one of the world’s premier golf tournaments.
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne finally took a long overdue action and quietly issued a press release announcing that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore had been admitted as members to the club. The announcement of Rice’s and Moore’s induction failed to mention that they were the first female members.
The law allows private clubs, like Augusta National, to pursue exclusionary policies. Augusta National is a private gold club believed to have 300 members (the membership list is a closely guarded secret).
The club did not admit its first black member until 1990. This was a few years after the PGA of America threatened to pull the PGA Championship from Shoal Creek Golf Club near Birmingham, Ala., because the club did not have any blacks.
In 2001, women’s rights activist Martha Burk publicly pressured Augusta to admit its first female member. Then club chairman Hootie Johnson famously stated that the club might one day change its exclusionary policy “but not at the point of a bayonet.” In fact, the club underwrote the cost of televising the Master’s on CBS for two years, declining to take paid advertising for the broadcasts. This allowed the club to sidestep pressure from advertisers against such exclusionary practices.
It is difficult to reconcile Augusta National’s public role in sport with its prejudiced past. In the 1960s, the lack of any black player in the Master’s because of the tournament’s discriminatory procedures became an issue as the Civil Rights movement reached its zenith. The wall of segregation finally came down in 1975 when Lee Elder played the major.
When Augusta National founder and legendary golfer Bobby Jones died in 1971 and wealthy New York financier Clifford Roberts died in 1977, the controversy involving race receded somewhat. Yet to many people, it remains a bastion of the Johnny Reb Old South.
The history of sport has always been in part about the interplay between sport and society. Major League Baseball integrated in 1947 at a time when the states of the old Confederacy were still legally segregated. College football and basketball in the South saw teams integrated only during the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Women did not gain access to play college sports in great numbers until after the federal government’s passage of Title IX in 1972.
While it’s a good thing that another barrier to equality has come down, we should not make too much out of it. There is a big difference between Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager and part-owner Branch Rickey trying to right an historic wrong while winning baseball games and a club full of rich, powerful elitists granting membership to two women of extreme privilege.
To read more on this issue see Bill Plaschke’s column in the L.A. Times and Michael Bamberger’s column in Sports Illustrated.
Greg Tyler is the editor of The Sport Digest. He also is the Library Director/Archivist at the United States Sports Academy and teaches sport law courses due in part to his background as an attorney. He writes frequently on legal issues that impact the world of sports and on the interplay between sports and society.