Out of America: All together now: My country club, 'tis of thee

Rupert Cornwell: Augusta's privileged acres should be haunted by the voice of a woman persecuted for her race

They are, in their ways, two of this country's holiest places, yet they could not be more different. One is a monument in the heart of the capital that evokes the man and the event that more than any other shaped American history. The other is a manicured slice of southern countryside, ablaze right now with azaleas, magnolia and dogwood, and which for the past few days has been mecca of a global sporting universe. But this Easter Day their stories overlap.

The current importance of the second venue needs no explanation to anyone with the remotest interest in the game of golf. This afternoon sees the climax of the Augusta Masters tournament. The event is not just a dazzling spectacle in its own right, that to course-devouring tournament pros and humble hackers alike signifies golf's annual rebirth. The Masters is also the swallow that heralds the coming of an entire sporting summer across the northern hemisphere.

But what has Augusta, hidden among the rolling pine-clad country of the state of Georgia, to do with the Lincoln Memorial here in Washington, the shrine to the 16th president who won the civil war and ended slavery? One connection, obviously, is Tiger Woods, descendant of slaves and arguably the greatest golfer who ever lived, who four times has donned the Masters' champion's green jacket. There is, however, a less obvious link: the African-American opera singer Marian Anderson, who died in 1993, at the age of 96.

For Arturo Toscanini, Anderson was a genius. She was, the Italian maestro said, the sort of classical singer who came along once a century. But in Anderson's own country in 1939, the colour of her skin made her a second-class citizen, so much so that the patriotic (and in those days largely segregationist) organisation Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to perform in the DAR's Constitution Hall, then the largest theatre in still largely segregated Washington.

What followed helped to change history. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned in outrage from the DAR, and her husband Franklin gave permission for an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial instead. The event was a milestone in the emancipation of black America. Seven decades later, the clip on YouTube still sends shivers down the spine. "Nation's Capitol Gets Lesson in Tolerance," proclaims the newsreel headline as Anderson, clad in an ankle-length fur coat, sings "My Country, 'Tis of Thee".

Martin Luther King would later describe the moment as "a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity" and it remains an inspiration to this day. King indirectly reprised Anderson in his speech of August 1963, while less than three months ago, Aretha Franklin performed "My Country 'Tis of Thee" as Barack Obama was being inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol, opposite the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the Mall.

That occasion was a tribute to the advent of America's first black president, yet Franklin's performance was unmistakably also homage to Anderson. Now, on this April afternoon of 2009, she will be remembered in an anniversary concert at the Lincoln Memorial, at which the African-American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves will perform "America the Beautiful" and "Ave Maria" – both sung by Anderson at the same spot in 1939 – while Colin Powell will be the speaker.

Tiger Woods, of course, is to golf what Colin Powell was to politics before Obama came along. Woods's superstardom has been evident all week at Augusta. He will have been the most talked-about competitor, the one with the biggest gallery, the player against whom all others are measured. But Woods also will have made us forget that the Deep South stage on which he walked was for long years anything but colour-blind. The club may be host to the first and most evocative of golf's four major championships. But for the rest of the year it is a bastion of privilege and discrimination.

Back when the course was to open in 1932, Augusta's founding father Bobby Jones wrote that he wanted to create "a golf course and a retreat of such stature, and of such excellence, that men of some means and devoted to the game of golf might find the club worthwhile as an extra luxury". In other words, it would be the last word in exclusivity – and has remained so. The 300-odd members are a cross section of America's great and good, and its very, very wealthy. Their average age, according to a list obtained by USA Today in 2004, was 72. It won't have come down much since.

Not surprisingly, Augusta, for all Woods's domination now, has not exactly been a trailblazer in racial desegregation. Charlie Sifford, the first black golfer of note in the US, played in the two other American majors, but never the Masters. Only in 1975 did Lee Elder become the first African-American to do so, and received hate mail for his pains. And Augusta National the club admitted its first black member only in 1990. (There are now said to be six of them.) Woods is the exception, not the rule. Things move slower in the south, and in few places more slowly than Augusta.

Note too Jones's conception of the institution he was founding. Augusta was to be a refuge for "men of some means". Men, note, not women. To this day Augusta does not have a single female member. Demonstrations have been held; player boycotts of the Masters have been urged, and thunderous leaders denouncing the discrimination have appeared in The New York Times and other right-minded organs.

But to no avail. A black man has entered the Oval Office before a woman, of whatever colour, has passed through the hallowed portals of Augusta National Golf Club as an equal citizen. Woods, who happens to be married to a white woman, has said women should be admitted, but he has not pressed the point. Nor have any of his colleagues. It is a sobering thought that while Hillary Clinton could easily have been elected president last year, she could not have breached fortress Augusta. Nor for that matter could Marian Anderson – though in those days just being black would have sufficed to keep her out.

Comments