New CEO at IBM revives Augusta all-male membership debate

Written by Associated Press | Jacksonville | Updated: Mar 31 2012, 05:58am hrs
The appointment of a new chief executive at IBM has revived the debate over Augusta Nationals all-male membership just one week before the Masters.

IBM hired Virginia Rometty as its CEO this year, which could mean a break in recent tradition if Augusta sticks to its history of never having a woman as one of its roughly 300 members.

One of the Masters most well-known and recognisable partners, IBM has consistently had its CEO invited to golfs most exclusive club. The relationship between Augusta National Golf Club and IBM is so tight, in fact, that the company has a hospitality cabin near the 10th hole and its CEOs have traditionally been permitted to wear the clubs signature green blazers while on scene.

The last four CEOs of IBM all belonged to the club. However, a woman has never worn an Augusta green jacket since it opened in 1933.

I think theyre both in a bind, Martha Burk said Thursday evening from Washington. It was Burk who led an unsuccessful campaign 10 years ago for Augusta to admit a female member, demanding that four companies drop their television sponsorship because of the discrimination. Hootie Johnson, club chairman at the time, said Augusta would not be pressured to take a female member at the point of a bayonet.

IBM is in a bigger bind than the club, Burk said. The club trashed their image years ago. IBM is a corporation. They ought to care about the brand, and they ought to care about what people think. And if theyre not careful, they might undermine their new CEO.

Billy Payne, who ran the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, took over as club chairman in 2006. He said that day the home of the Masters has no specific timetable for admitting women. The question was raised at the 2007 and 2010 Masters, and both times, he said membership issues were private.

Rometty succeeds Sam Palmissano at IBM, which runs the Masters website from the bottom floor of the media centre. According to a list published by USA Today in 2002, the previous three CEOs also were members Louis Gertsner, John Akers and John Open. Johnson wound up doing away with television sponsorship for two years to keep the Masters corporate partners out of the fray.

Burk doesnt believe it should be that simple this time. What IBM needs to do is draw a line in the sand Were either going to pull our sponsorship and membership and any ancillary activities we support with the tournament, or the club is going to have to honour our CEO the way they have in the past, Burk said. Theres no papering over it. They just need to step up and do the right thing. They need to not pull that argument that they support the tournament and not the club, she said. That does not fool anybody, and they could undermine their new CEO.

Burk said she would not be surprised if IBM pressured Rometty to say she doesnt want to be a member. IBM has not commented.

Really, I dont think its her responsibility, Burk said. Its the board of directors. They need to take action here. They dont need to put that on her. They need to say, This is wrong. We thought the club was on the verge of making changes several years ago, and we regretfully end our sponsorship to maintain her credibility and the company brand.

The debate returns just in time for one of the most anticipated Masters in years. Tiger Woods finally returned to winning last week at Bay Hill and is considered one of the favourites. Augusta National does not ban women. They can play the golf course, but no woman has worn an Augusta green jacket, a status symbol in business and golf.