MEDIA WATCH: Augusta stays course as opinions vary on membership policy

Back in June, the Augusta National Golf Club, home of America's premier golf event, The Masters, was publicly approached about revising its men-only membership policy. The National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), an umbrella group for 160 women's organizations with 7 million members, sent a letter requesting the change and, ever since, Augusta National has been caught in a growing wave of bad publicity over what The New York Times (October 17) called "golf's most vexing issue."

Back in June, the Augusta National Golf Club, home of America's premier golf event, The Masters, was publicly approached about revising its men-only membership policy. The National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), an umbrella group for 160 women's organizations with 7 million members, sent a letter requesting the change and, ever since, Augusta National has been caught in a growing wave of bad publicity over what The New York Times (October 17) called "golf's most vexing issue."

An analysis of recent coverage has been replete with the NCWO's emboldened demands that Augusta alter its policy. In an October 10 profile, NCWO chairwoman Martha Burk told USA Today why her group had taken up the cause: "As home of the Masters, it is highly symbolic. It reminds women of the glass ceiling, unequal pay, and all the reasons women are running second in America." Burk has admitted that Augusta, as a private club, has the legal right to set its own policies, but indicated that she viewed it as "a moral issue" - hoping the bad publicity would shame Augusta into changing its membership stance. She argued that Augusta is no longer simply being associated with a beautiful golf course, but also with sexism and discrimination. As The Philadelphia Inquirer (October 13) assessed, "Fact is, it has all come down to saving face. How can the club, with rich, proud, powerful and stubborn members, do precisely what Burk wants without looking as if it caved in to the pressure?" However, for all of the coverage of the NCWO's urge for change, the LA Times (October 11) reported, "Insiders at Augusta National insist high-profile public messages of support for admitting women to the club have no effect on the issue." Augusta's stance on the matter earned much less attention, apparently attempting to defuse the matter rather than let the war of words escalate. Augusta chairman "Hootie" Johnson has sternly reiterated that it alone determines its course of action. These comments were echoed by many outlets, as prominent golfers such as Tiger Woods and Nancy Lopez shrugged off the issue, saying it didn't matter what they thought and that Augusta should choose its own path. There were also some indications from members and outsiders that Augusta was moving in the direction of admitting women members in the near future, but that the NCWO's campaign had now stiffened the club's resolve to make sure it gave the image of proceeding at its own pace. In this respect, some articles questioned the NCWO's tactics. A rival women's group told USA Today (October 10), "This is an attempt at public shaming. It does more harm than good." Others, such as BusinessWeek (October 9), argued that there were more important women's issues to be supported. The Buffalo News (October 9) wrote, "Most women couldn't care less whether a filthy-rich female receives full access to a club inhabited by filthy-rich males." Reporting over the last month indicates that Augusta is quite intent on doing things its own way - having canceled the TV coverage of its 2003 tournament so it could not be pressured by corporate sponsors and ignoring threats of protesters outside the club in April if changes don't occur. There are further indications that when Augusta does allow female members, it will do so quietly, in keeping with its tradition.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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