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Augusta National chairman refuses to address admitting women to exclusive club


Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Billy Payne said today he wouldn’t discuss the organization’s lack of female members amid questions about a possible invitation to Virginia "Ginni" Rometty of International Business Machines Corp.

"All issues of membership remain the private deliberations of the membership," Payne said at his annual news conference on the eve of the Masters Tournament at the club in Augusta, Ga. "That statement remains accurate."

Augusta National is again under scrutiny for its all-male membership following the appointment of Rometty as chief executive officer of IBM, one of three Masters Tournament sponsors.

While Augusta National has no formal policy against female members, it hasn’t admitted one in its eight decades. It has traditionally invited IBM’s chief executive officer for membership.

"We don’t talk about our private deliberations," Payne said. "We especially don’t talk about them when a named candidate is a part of the question."

Edward Barbini, a spokesman for Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, has previously declined to comment on the issue.

Nine years ago, Martha Burk, then head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, staged a small protest near the front entrance of the club founded in 1933 by golf champion Bobby Jones and Wall Street financier Clifford Roberts.

Burk had written the previous June to Hootie Johnson, then Augusta National’s chairman, asking him to review the club’s membership policy to avoid it "becoming an issue" during the 2003 tournament. Johnson responded that he wouldn’t be "bullied" into allowing female members.

"There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership," Johnson said in a media statement in July 2002. "But that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet."

Burk then wrote to sponsors, including IBM, asking them to withdraw their support for the tournament. Augusta National subsequently announced it wouldn’t air commercials during the 2003 event and suspended its sponsorships with IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup for the 2003 and 2004 tournaments. Only IBM returned in 2005.

As players prepare for Thursday’s opening round of the Masters, golf’s first major tournament of the year, the issue has become part of the discussion. Players, who are invited to participate, have been reluctant to talk about the club’s membership.

"It’s a completely private club and they can do what they want," Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, the 2009 Players championship winner, said Tuesday at the club’s practice range. "I don’t really have anything to say on it."

While the club doesn’t disclose the names of its members, a 2010 partial list obtained by Bloomberg News and 2004 documents published by the Augusta Chronicle and USA Today show the past four IBM CEOs were members, beginning with John R. Opel, who ran the company from 1981 to 1985 and died last year. John F. Akers, IBM’s chief from 1985 to 1993, and Louis V. Gerstner, who helped turn around IBM as CEO from 1993 to 2002, also were members.

The refusal to consider female membership amid Burk’s protest prompted the resignations from the club of then-Treasury Secretary nominee John Snow and former CBS Corp. Chief Executive Officer Thomas Wyman, who called the policy "pigheaded." Wyman died about five weeks later. Snow was secretary of the treasury under President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2006, and now is chairman of Cerberus Capital Management LP, an investment firm.

IBM, Exxon Mobil Corp. and AT&T Inc. are now the tournament’s only U.S. sponsors. Their agreements enable the companies to entertain executives and clients in private hospitality cabins, tucked into a wooded area along the left side of the 10th hole.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson is a member, as is AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. Ed Whitacre, Stephenson’s predecessor, is a member and in December gave Stephenson his place as a director on the U.S. PGA Tour’s board.

Rick Burton, a former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said a Masters sponsorship probably costs at least $10 million annually.

Augusta didn’t have a black member until 1990, when it extended an invitation to Gannett Co. television President Ron Townsend, who still belongs. That move followed the PGA of America’s decision to move it’s annual championship, the season’s final golf major, from Alabama’s Shoal Creek because of that club’s all-white membership.

Payne, who succeeded Johnson as chairman of the tournament and the golf club in 2006, has previously said he has "no specific timetable" on possibly ending all-male membership. He repeatedly declined to comment on membership issues at today’s news conference.

As the chief organizer of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Payne was known as a progressive leader. His Olympic organizing team included influential women, including Ginger Watkins, Linda Stephenson and Cindy Fowler.

Since Payne took over as chairman of Augusta National, the tournament has made changes including a ticketing program for children, the establishment of an Asian amateur championship and the creation of the Masters Tournament Foundation. The charitable foundation invests in organizations to help promote golf globally. Funding comes from private donations, proceeds from the tournament and sales of a 2012 Tiger Woods Masters-related video game.

In 2010, Payne publicly criticized the extramarital affairs of Woods, a four-time Masters winner, saying "our hero did not live up to the expectations of a role model that we sought for our children."

Unlike her predecessors at IBM, Rometty said she plays golf only occasionally. She and her husband, Mark, prefer scuba diving and split their time between White Plains, New York, and Bonita Springs, Florida.

IBM is featured in the tournament’s TV commercials and runs the event’s website, mobile-phone applications and media-center technology. IBM’s official sponsorship began 10 years ago, though it had been involved earlier. The company has run the website since 1996.

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