For a decade, Augusta National Golf Club could ignore the protests of women outside the gates and the quiet urging of sponsors to move into the modern era. But now, the most potent threat to its antiquated hierarchy has come from within.
The good ol' boy network could succeed in this age of political correctness, liberal media and qualified women only if everyone colluded, er, cooperated.
But IBM, the technology corporation and longtime Masters sponsor, broke from a tradition like no other and hired a woman, Ginni Rometty, to head its company. Now, Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters each year, is in a pickle.
The only golf tournament where they need a tissue box in the announcer booth given all the weepy reverence, the Masters has historically given green jackets to the heads of IBM, Exxon and AT&T. Yet it has never conferred membership upon a woman (as far as anyone knows, since the organization does not talk about membership and would not comment for this story). So, will Augusta deny IBM and Rometty the traditional green? Or will it allow the first woman to appear on its grounds in a green jacket? Or does Rometty, who also declined to comment, daintily defuse the whole issue by saying she looks terrible in green, anyway?
First, a little history.
In 1990, Augusta admitted its first African-American member, Gannett executive Ron Townsend. In 1999, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan was credentialed for the tournament. During the pretournament press conference with then-Augusta chairman William "Hootie" Johnson, Brennan asked if the club had a woman as a member.
Johnson told Brennan a woman would be a member "in due time." Brennan wrote about this, and dozens of other columns about the actual golf, but will forever be remembered by some as the Elphaba of Augusta, minus the flying monkeys, for asking the question.
In 2003, Martha Burk famously protested Augusta's male-only membership outside the gates. That was an inconvenience, and Hootie famously said Augusta would not be forced into change "at the point of a bayonet." (By the way, this phrase worked just as well during the Civil War.)
Last year, Bergen Record columnist Tara Sullivan was singled out from the male writers in the pack by a security guard and denied access to the locker room after the last round. Many of her colleagues (male and female) were outraged, and tournament officials swiftly apologized for it -- their policy for the media is not gender-based -- but Sullivan reflected this week on why a guard assumed she should not enter.
"That assumption is much easier to make at a place like Augusta because of its membership policies," Sullivan said.
So, next week, Sullivan and the rest of the media will head back to Augusta, where there will be change, one way or another. It won't come in the form of a press release, but in the quiet revolutionary act of a woman in green, or Augusta's choosing to not turn away from the love of tradition it has held in a death grip through tides of change.
Augusta is now led by Billy Payne, a man who broke out of the bubble to rip Tiger Woods in 2010 for disappointing "all of us and, more importantly, our kids and grandkids." Payne was also the executive officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, where American women won gold medals in soccer, basketball and softball.
Maybe men like Payne see Rometty's rise as an opportunity rather than a problem. Face it, Rometty got in fair and square, no bayonets needed. She earned her degree in computer science and rose through the ranks at IBM, championing the successful purchase and integration of PricewaterhouseCoopers. As her predecessor, Sam Palmisano, told the New York Times: "Ginni got it because she deserved it. It's got zero to do with progressive social policies."
And if it isn't Rometty, there are a dozen women behind her. Rometty, Brennan and women of their generation are at the vanguard, the first wave to truly benefit from Title IX in the educational sense. They worked their way up the ladder and paid their dues, and are now at a point where they have the platform that comes with time and mastery. They will be popping through glass ceilings for decades.
Perhaps the day will arrive when excluding women from the fairways of Augusta won't be limiting a woman's access to the deal-brokers, but instead will cut off those chummy golfers from the true corridors of power.
In 2003, it was easier to dismiss women like Burk with, "Go start your own club," but in the next 20 years, that club will be filled with CEOs, Supreme Court Justices and college presidents.
The Masters should cut its losses and welcome women like Rometty, before women decide a backwards Augusta National just isn't worth their time, despite the heartrendingly magnificent magnolias.
To borrow the phrase from Hootie, it's due time.