Why our relationship with the Masters is so conflicted

by Apr 10, 11:20 AM
Brian Snyder / Reuters

The most famous 365 acres of land in Augusta, Ga., have an incredible history with money. 

The clubhouse, where players sign their cards today, was the home of Dennis Redmond. He owned and operated an indigo plantation on the property until he sold the land in 1857. The next wave of profit would come from a Belgian, Baron Louis Berckmans and his son Prosper Julius Alphonse, who converted the indigo plantation into Fruitland Nurseries, importing plants from around the world.

In 1930, Bobby Jones retired from professional golf and decided he would build his dream course on this land with the help of architect Willis Irvin. They paid $70,000 for the entire property, renovating the rundown house for their clubhouse along with building the course.

From an indigo plantation to a nursery, the progression toward the lush Augusta National known for its horticulture and trying greens was natural. And so, in 1934, the most revered tournament on the PGA Tour began hosting the best golfers in the United States, challenging them to master the course imagined by Jones.

The prestige associated with the course is perhaps best understood by something current pro Brandt Snedeker told GolfTV personality David Feherty:

It's one of those places that over time I show up there it's a different special experience ... I would trade whatever else I win in my career for that tournament.

Winning the Masters and earning the green jacket is a rite of passage for every elite golfer. For one week each year, Augusta represents greatness, tradition, and impeccable greens. 

However, what it represents the other 51 weeks is something else entirely.

"We all have a moral and legal right to organize our clubs the way we wish"

Augusta insists the Masters and the golf club are separate and should not be considered one in the same. However, Augusta National proudly puts their name on the tournament and hosts it year after year. The club and their policies are intrinsically tied to the tournament because of this.

It's grown to become an unwelcome shackle. From the very beginning, if you wanted to be a member at Augusta, you had to be the right class and color. This stance became less and less acceptable as time went on.

In 1975, founding member Clifford Roberts stated resolutely that he wanted Augusta to remain one way: racist. "As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black."

It wasn't until the PGA Tour threatened to move the PGA Championship from Shoal Creek (an all-white Alabama golf club) that Augusta National invited their first black member. The controversy in 1990 had Augusta National members paying close attention. They quickly invited Ron Townsend to be their first black member that year; a band-aid solution to cover any sore that the tour might impose.

Policies pertaining to gender weren't much more evolved.

After a full year of bringing attention to her cause, Martha Burk (then chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations) made headlines in 2002 when her letter to Augusta National members was angrily replied to by William "Hootie" Johnson. 

The chairman of Augusta national emailed his response to the letter - which called for equality at Augusta for men and women - to more than 80 media outlets.

We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case. There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.

It wasn't exactly the most astute public relations maneuver. Johnson had taken what would have been a private matter and willingly publicized his response to reveal a stubborn perspective on progress. 

The stories wrote themselves and tied known members of the club to an acceptance of gender inequality. Thomas Wyman, the former CEO of CBS, and John Sno, after being nominated by President George W. Bush as Secretary of the Treasury, publicly resigned as members in 2002.

In 2003, Johnson made matters even worse when he told PBS he would prefer if women were never invited as members.

At its heart, Augusta National is simply a club where friends gather to play golf and socialize. Our membership is single gender just as many other organizations and clubs all across America. These would include junior Leagues, sororities, fraternities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and countless others. And we all have a moral and legal right to organize our clubs the way we wish.

With the fear of losing more high profile members on their minds, Augusta eventually caved into pressure from the PGA Tour - who wanted their athletes to participate at the Olympic Games, where only sports that "practiced without discrimination with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play" were included - and relented.

However, the motivation for reform has hardly been altruistic. Augusta National realized their course would take a hit if they didn't stop discriminating against non-whites and women.

Augusta adjusts its club by doing the bare minimum

Despite his wishful claim of racist segregation, Roberts would live to see the day a black man played the course he helped found. Lee Elder missed the cut in 1975, but the race barrier was officially broken when he became the first African American to play at Augusta National during the Masters Tournament.

Twenty years after Roberts' death, a prodigy from Stanford University would change the game forever. Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by a dozen strokes over Tom Kite, becoming both the youngest (21 years old) and the first non-white player to win at Augusta.

Seven years before that, one woman made her mark on golf history with much less fanfare, but also in the only way she could.

Fanny Sunesson became the first female to caddie at the Masters alongside Nick Faldo, who won his second green jacket in 1990. Sunesson broke the gender barrier, marching into the clubhouse and donning her white jumpsuit. She doesn't think anything of her appearance as Faldo's caddie. "I was just doing my job, and I just happened to be a girl."

Sunesson remains the only woman to caddie a major championship winner.

Nonetheless, it wasn't until 2012 that Augusta would welcome its first female members. After years of pressure, chairman Billy Payne finally invited former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore to be members at Augusta.

There isn't one organization that can force the hand of Augusta like the PGA Tour. Augusta National has carefully placed itself in a position where history and tradition protect it from changing a club that has refused to accept basic societal transitions.

By carefully allowing one black man in 1990 to join and two women in 2012, they're simply maintaining memberships. Once again, the rusted cogs of progress at Augusta weren't oiled out of social obligation, but rather the frightening prospect of losing high profile members, and in turn, money.

You can't simply boycott the Masters

In 2003, Tiger Woods was pressured to boycott Augusta by women's activist groups. He had the chance to win his third Masters and wasn't about to give that up. Augusta may not have changed their policies anyway. "They’re asking me to, you know, give up an opportunity to do something no one has ever done in the history of the Masters."

Phil Mickelson agreed with his rival's stance. According to him, the players aren't the ones making decisions, they're simply playing at a destination as scheduled by the PGA Tour. 

"This is … this really has nothing to do with the players ... We don’t care who competes, men, women, what ethnicity. It makes no difference. If you can play golf and play it well, you are welcome on the PGA Tour."

History is why the PGA Tour is tied to Augusta National. Amen Corner, the narrow 18th lined with tall trees, the colors that pop off the screen. Those things can't be replaced with any other course. History is also the disguise Augusta hides behind.

The slow movement towards change is based solely on the amount of money that flows through the club. Many want in, no matter the policies that govern it. A membership means status. A promise of status and the best golf in the world gives Augusta National a never-ending line of hopefuls.

For a week in April, Augusta National is serene and captivating. Once the tour pros pack up on Sunday, the facade of greenery remains, but Augusta National becomes a place where exclusion, ignorance, and greed reign.

The PGA Tour aligns itself with the policies at Augusta by continuing the tradition of the Masters. The tour may be inclusive but the course with the most storied history is far from it. You are the company you keep, and for the tour, fans, and networks, that means enjoying the spectacle while ignoring the issues.

References

Augusta National Golf Club. Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Darla Moore Confirmed as Members of Augusta NationalMasters.com. N.p., 20 Aug. 2012. Web.

Burton Nelson, Mariah. "Women of the Year 2003." Ms. Magazine Winter 2003: n. pag. Web.

Crouse, Karen. "Treasure of Golf’s Sad Past, Black Caddies Vanish in Era of Riches." Editorial. The New York Times 2 Apr. 2012, Golf sec.: n. pag. Web.

Golf Today. "Augusta Defends Male Only Members Policy." Golf Today. N.p., n.d. Web.

McCarthy, Michael, and Erik Brady. "Privacy Becomes Public at Augusta." USA TODAY [Virginia] 2008: n. pag. Web.

PBS. "A Master’s Challenge: Augusta National Golf Club and Women." PBS. PBS Newshour, 20 Feb. 2003. Web.

PGA.com. "Timeline of African-American Achievements in Golf." PGA. N.p., n.d. Web.

Shipnuck, Alan. "Master of His Universe." Sports Illustrated 7 Apr. 2003: n. pag. Web.

Snedeker, Brandt. Interview by David Feherty. Feherty. GolfTV. Mar. 2014. Television.

Feature photo courtesy of Brian Snyder / Reuters