The Last Word: Masters will not bend to a new mistress

Augusta National is a bastion of sexism that even a female IBM big shot cannot hope to bring down

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The Independent Online

Contrary to what Martha Burk believes, Tiger Woods doesn't have to take responsibility for all of golf's evils. Sexism is a scourge in the game, but it has nothing to do with the 14-time major-winner. If the last two and a half years have taught us anything at all it is that the former deity known as Tiger is a bloke who plays golf rather well. Nothing more.

You might remember Burk. A decade ago, the female-rights campaigner took on the Augusta National Golf Club for its blatant discrimination in not having any women members. Ultimately, she lost. Hootie Johnson, the then Augusta chairman, issued an infamous declaration that he wouldn't be pressurised "at the point of a bayonet" to invite a woman to join.

"So what if our sponsors pull out of the Masters," was the gist of it. "We have so much money we don't need sponsors. We are a private club and will do what we want." And Augusta did, holding two fingers up to Burk, who seemed quite relieved to wash her hands of such bigotry. The green jackets had chosen to remain in the past.

Except Augusta National is connected to the world, whether it likes it or not, and it was inevitable that some customs would clash with "progress". The club has traditionally granted membership to the CEO of IBM. Guess what? IBM's CEO is now a woman. What happens next? What means more to the green jackets? Big business or small-mindedness?

The decision has undoubtedly been made. Virginia Rometty, the woman in question, has declined to comment and Augusta National is sticking steadfastly to its policy of never discussing membership matters. For all we know, Rometty could have been made a member and what would be perceived as a significant moment has gone unannounced. But then, maybe they had a quiet word and maybe she doesn't wish to become embroiled in a debate which is already grabbing headlines, with the indefatigable Burk touring the news channels. After all, Rometty probably has enough things in her in-tray to solve.

What does seem certain is that Billy Payne will be asked about it in his state of the National address on Wednesday. Chairman Payne is more enlightened than his predecessor. We know this because of the manner in which he has allowed TV to screen more live Masters action. Under Johnson it was a curio that most of the world had seen a man walking on the moon but had yet to witness one walking up the fourth fairway at Augusta. Payne recognised the need to modernise. The only question remaining is how far his vision stretches or, more to the point, how far would he dare stretch it without facing the wrath of the membership.

But then, does it really matter if Rometty is a member or not? What difference would it make to sexism in golf? Will Muirfield, the venue for next year's Open, suddenly decide that it, too, must accept female members? Erm, no. The men-only clubs aren't going to give in so easily. To them it's not a principle but a way of leisure, if not life. Such clubs are full of rich, influential characters who do not take well being dictated to. Yes, they should be ashamed. But they aren't. In fact, they are proud to be the last bastion.

All the golfing suffragettes can do is wait until the dinosaurs die off. Time will force the plus-foured revolution, not little victories such as whether a bunch of multi-millionaires has allowed another multi-millionaire with ovaries to be part of their gang. The attitude runs far deeper than the voting form at the Augusta AGM. They will not be moved. They don't see why they should be.

Burk is better off in battles that can be won. Her criticism of Woods is ridiculous. "He does not have the balls to even articulate an opinion on this," she says. "So I have no respect for Tiger Woods, he has no backbone, and I'm not expecting any shred of integrity from him on this issue."

Steady on. This a sportsman who knows that Augusta did not allow a black man into their ranks until he himself was a teenager. What does Burk want? For Woods to declare, "This is wrong, I refuse to play," before throwing himself under the Chairman's buggy like a latter-day Emily Davison? Has she heard of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 majors? That's all that fires Woods's conscience.

If the fight should be fought on any front it should be with IBM. In fairness, Burk has been keen to point this out. IBM is a long-time sponsor of the Masters, but surely its board of directors could not tolerate a situation in which the CEO is undermined because of her sex. IBM is a public company with women customers. It will come under pressure first to reveal whether Rometty has been snubbed and if she has it will come under more pressure to end its association. Two of its board of directors are members of Augusta National. The intrigue deepens.

Believe it, Burk may well have the last laugh. I doubt very much whether the green-jackets will back down but there could be some embarrassed faces if IBM walks away. The pity is that the most anticipated Masters in living memory may well be overshadowed. Augusta would only have itself to blame. Not that it would necessarily care.