With people busy exchanging gifts and well wishes, Christmas seems a strange time to report on the controversy swirling around the Augusta National Golf Club, its determination to exclude women members and its hosting of one of golf’s four annual “major” tournaments, the prestigious Masters Championship. Christmas is synonymous with goodwill towards all. Goodwill is essential if golf is not to be deprived of the legacy of Bobby Jones, the great gentleman and arguably the greatest golfer ever to play the game and a founding father of Augusta National and the Masters tournament.
Last fall, the Council of National Women’s Organizations (CNWO) and the New York Times launched a campaign against Augusta National and its all male status. Male members are admitted irrespective of race or religion. However, while women may play there, they are denied membership. William “Hootie” Johnson, chairman of Augusta National, was hit with an “in your face” demand to change that policy. He and his fellow members refused with an equally “in your face” no. In protest, one member immediately resigned, Thomas Wyman, former CEO of CBS, the network that has exclusively covered the Masters for decades. Prospective Secretary of the Treasury John Snow turned in his membership after being nominated to the post.
To bolster their pressure, the CNWO and the New York Times called on golfing greats Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to resign from Augusta and Tiger Woods, an African-Asian-American who happens to be the best player in the world today and possibly the best ever, to boycott the event. However, asking professional athletes to deal with a situation not of their making is patently unfair. It is up to the PGA (Professional Golfers Association) Tour and the members at Augusta to resolve this dispute.
Clubs are entitled to be gender exclusive. Outside Washington, the Burning Tree Golf Club gave up a large tax deduction to maintain its male-only status. Burning Tree does not host a major or any tournament on the PGA Tour. Clubs, however, may not discriminate by race and host tour events. That practice was officially ended in 1990 when the Shoal Creek Club in Alabama was told to admit members irrespective of race or lose the major tournament sponsored by and named the PGA. It complied.
Golf’s two other majors are the U.S. and British Opens that rotate between clubs each year. In Britain, clubs that host the Open are not required to have lady members. But it is an old adage in England that a woman’s alternative to all-male eating clubs is a good restaurant. Americans aren’t necessarily that hardheaded. However, because the Masters has become a national event and not simply Augusta’s, the gender policies of the club should be reviewed.
This returns to Christmas. Suppose the three ghosts in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol paid Hootie Johnson a visitation on Christmas Eve. The ghost of Christmas Past would have whisked Johnson back to an Augusta in which players could only be white. Blacks could caddy for members or hold largely menial jobs around the club.
The ghost of Christmas Present would present Johnson with an integrated club and men of color who were great Masters’ champions. V.J.Singh, a Fijian and Tiger Woods, have won coveted Green Jackets. But the ghost of Christmas Future is most scary for Johnson and his colleagues. Carried to the short par three 12th hole that begins the famous “amen corner,” Johnson spots a fresh tombstone erected on the tee side of Rae’s Creek into which many an errant golf shot ended the chance for victory. Engraved on the tombstone is: “Here Lies the Masters Championship, killed by a combination of political correctness and male stubbornness.” Hootie awakes in a cold sweat.
For those not intimate with the golfing term “mulligan,” its provenance is centuries old. Every Saturday morning, the story goes, the owner of a horse and cart would drive his foursome to the golf course. Because the driver’s hands were often cramped by holding the reins, he would be allowed a second, penalty free shot on the first tee if his first were errant. The man’s name was Mulligan. Today, a penalty free shot, not authorized by the rules, bears that name.
For all of the members of Augusta, Christmas is a time of good-will. The specter of a Christmas future without the Masters is not impossible. So, in the best spirit of the game and in the memory of Bobby Jones, take a mulligan boys, take a mulligan.