- Associated Press - Friday, March 30, 2012

As a club that prides itself on tradition, Augusta National has unwittingly wound up in the middle of a membership debate it thought it was done with nearly a decade ago.

Just seven days before the Masters, no less.

The last four chief executives of IBM _ a longtime corporate sponsor of the Masters _ have been members of the exclusive golf club in Augusta, Ga. The latest CEO of the computer giant happens to be a woman. Virginia Rometty was appointed earlier this year.

One problem _ a woman has never worn a member’s green jacket since Augusta National opened in 1933.

“I think they’re both in a bind,” Martha Burk said Thursday evening.

Burk spearheaded a campaign 10 years ago for the club to admit a female member, applying pressure on just about everyone connected with the club and with the Masters, the major championship that garners the highest TV ratings. She demanded that four companies drop their television sponsorship because of discrimination. She lobbied PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem not to recognize the Masters as part of the tour schedule.

But it didn’t work.

Hootie Johnson, chairman of the club back then, said Augusta might one day have a female member, but it would be on the club’s timetable, and “not at the point of a bayonet.” The protest fizzled in a parking lot down the street during the third round of the 2003 tournament.

Now it’s back, and this time it has a face _ Rometty, a 31-year veteran of IBM who has been ranked among the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune magazine the last seven years. Rometty was No. 7 last year.

What’s the next step?

Augusta National declined to comment, keeping with its policy of not discussing membership issues. IBM has not commented publicly, and did not return a phone call Thursday night.

IBM is in a bigger bind than the club,” Burk said. “The club trashed their image years ago. IBM is a corporation. They ought to care about the brand, and they ought to care about what people think. And if they’re not careful, they might undermine their new CEO.”

Augusta has a new chairman in Billy Payne, who ran the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. When he replaced Johnson as chairman of the club and of the Masters tournament in 2006, he said there was “no specific timetable” for admitting women.

The question was raised at the 2007 and 2010 Masters. Both times, Payne said membership issues were private.

Rometty succeeds Sam Palmissano at IBM, which runs the Masters’ website from the bottom floor of the media center. According to a list published by USA Today in 2002, the previous three CEOs also were members _ Louis Gertsner, John Akers and John Open.

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