Sunday, April 08, 2012

Open your clubhouse or I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow the damn thing down!

With Rometty at Masters, A Gender Debate Simmers
IBM CEO Virginia Rometty applauds while watching the fourth round of the Masters golf tournament on April 8. (Associated Press)

Bubba Watson won his first green jacket in a thrilling overtime finish at the Masters tournament, but the question of whether the all-male Augusta National Golf Club would invite IBM's new CEO, Virginia M. Rometty, to become its first female member remained unsettled.

International Business Machines Corp. is one of three corporate sponsors of the Masters. Augusta National, which hosts the event in Augusta, Georgia has offered membership to the past four IBM CEOs. But because of the club's all-male policy, it is unclear whether an invitation has been extended to Ms. Rometty, who took over the CEO job at the beginning of the year. IBM and the club declined to say whether she had been invited to join.

That conflict set the stage for a drama over the past week in which an historic golf tournament and an iconic company became entangled in a heated debate about the status of women.

On Sunday, Ms. Rometty strolled through the course and sat at the 18th hole in a chair wearing a pink blazer, white pants and white shoes. When asked by a reporter for a comment, she declined.

The issue has dogged Augusta National for a decade, but it erupted again this year because of Ms. Rometty's prominence. On Sunday, Ms. Rometty walked the course and discreetly entered IBM's cabin around lunchtime. The tournament's other two major corporate sponsors are Exxon Mobil Corp. and AT&T Inc.

Golf, like many sports, has a history of exclusion. For decades, African-Americans and women were excluded from many of the nation's top private golf clubs.

If Augusta National does decide to invite Ms. Rometty to become a member at some point, it wouldn't be the first time the club has changed its membership policy. It wasn't until 1990 that the club admitted its first African-American member.

Golf's Members-Only History

For decades, African-Americans and women were excluded from many of the nation's top private golf clubs. See a timeline of how the sport and the Augusta National club have changed their policies on who can play.
Over the past week, the delicate situation became a subject of debate. Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne struggled to bat away questions about allowing women to join during a news conference Wednesday.

Appearing uncomfortable at times, Mr. Payne said the issue of who gets invited to join the club is "subject to the private deliberations of the members." But reporters continued to press the issue, asking whether there is a mixed message in Augusta National's push to encourage people to take up golf while excluding women from joining.

On Thursday, the subject became presidential-campaign fodder, with both the White House and Republican front-runner Mitt Romney weighing in.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that President Barack Obama "believes Augusta should admit women," adding that it was "kind of long past the time when women should be excluded from anything."

Mr. Romney agreed that women should be allowed in.

Asked whether AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson believed women should be given membership in the club, a representative for the company said he declined to comment. A representative for Exxon Mobil CEO Rex W. Tillerson also said he wouldn't comment on the issue.

At Augusta National on Thursday and Friday, Ms. Rometty became a subject of conversation on the picturesque tree-lined course as the veteran golfer Fred Couples raced out to a lead.
Augusta National on Saturday. The golf club is at the center of a debate regarding membership for women. (The State/Zuma Press)

"My question is, does she want to join?" said Jason Avery, a tournament patron from Birmingham, Alabama.

"If she has an interest, then that's the debate."

Laura Graves, a tournament patron from Augusta, Georgia., said simply: "I respect the club's right to conduct their business the way they see fit."

Near the main clubhouse, Susanne and Carolin Fabricius, a mother and daughter attending from Munich, Germany, agreed that Ms. Rometty presented an intriguing scenario for Augusta National and supported the idea of her joining the club. "That day and age is just over with," Carolin Fabricius said, referring to a time the time when clubs excluded whole swaths of the population from membership. Her mother added, "It wouldn't hurt if they opened it up for a female member."

Ms. Rometty, 54 years old, is a golfer, but she is more partial to scuba diving. A website run by the United States Golf Association doesn't show a handicap for the IBM CEO, who is listed as playing at the Shadow Wood Country Club in Bonita Springs, Flordia. Her husband, Mark, has a 9.4 handicap, considered an impressive feat.

For IBM, the controversy became an unwelcome distraction during one of its premiere advertising and marketing events of the year. Sponsoring an event such as the Masters can cost $10 million to $15 million a year, said a senior marketing executive at a company that has entertained customers at the tournament.

As one of three major sponsors, IBM gets coveted television time to air its commercials during the four minutes each hour that are devoted to advertising.

On the golf course, IBM can entertain its clients and partners in its own cabin, a small white house located on a cul-de-sac with two other cabins, just off the 10th fairway. In addition, IBM flies in senior executives and puts them up in housing close to the course, people familiar with the matter said. Clients also get scarce badges allowing them entry into the tournament, the people said.

For IBM, the tournament offers a tool to strengthen existing client relationships and spark new ones.

Write to Spencer E. Ante at


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