The New York Times is again trying to gin up a controversy over the men-only status of Augusta National Golf Club, host of The Masters golf tournament, after embarrassing itself over the issue in 2003. Then-editor Howell Raines went on a months-long crusade to make the membership rules of the golf club a national civil rights issue through obsessive front-page Times coverage and even the squelching of the paper's own columnists for dissenting from the party line. An editorial actually called for Tiger Woods, then at the height of his game, to boycott the tournament in some kind of solidarity.
The paper ran silly front page stories like "CBS Staying Silent In Debate On Women Joining Augusta," ordered up by Raines himself. Yet the real world moved on, as the feminist protests at Augusta National, led my Martha Burk, flickered out with a turnout of around 40, roughly one protester for each overwrought Times article.
Now it's sportswriter Karen Crouse taking up the clubs against Augusta National on the first day of the tournament, in an article and a column designed to shame the club into dropping its ban on women members, using the ascension of Virginia Rometty as IBM's chief executive as a springboard (IBM's four previous CEOs were granted club memberships).
The headline to Crouse's column, which made the front of the Sports section: "Touchy Day At Augusta National Men’s Club." The original web headline used the insulting term "Boys Club," as in "Uncomfortable Day at the Augusta National Boys Club."
The azaleas have wilted, but change is in full bloom at Augusta National Golf Club. In his annual state of the Masters address Wednesday, the club’s chairman, Billy Payne, noted the addition of a restroom. Presumably it’s for men.
If the club had added its first female member recently, Payne did not crow about it. Joining the 21st century would be a monumental achievement for the green-jacketed gentry.
The club was given the cultural equivalent of a conceded putt this year when I.B.M., one of the tournament’s three corporate sponsors, along with Exxon Mobil and AT&T, chose Virginia M. Rometty as its new chief executive. The company’s four previous chief executives had been extended a club membership, so a precedent had been set. This was Augusta National’s chance to integrate its private men’s club, not at the point of a bayonet as Payne’s predecessor, Hootie Johnson, so colorfully put it in 2003, but as a matter of course.
At that moment, Payne’s next breath seemed pregnant with possibilities. Was he about to disclose that Rometty was a candidate for membership? That Condoleezza Rice has been a member for several years -- or Louise Suggs, one of the L.P.G.A. founders and a friend and occasional golf partner of Bobby Jones?
Wishful thinking, as it turned out.
Crouse described the "stricken expression" on Augusta National chairman Billy Payne’s face after a question about the membership ban, and claimed "He was squirming like a cornered animal."
A brief news article by Crouse under the headline "Players Sidestep Question of Augusta Membership Practices," was no less opinionated than her column:
There are many tight spots a Masters contestant can find himself in at Augusta National, not the least of which is having great affection for a tournament run by a club that would not allow one’s wife, mother or daughter to become a member.
Several players in this year’s field of 96 were approached under the shade of the oak tree in front of the clubhouse and asked their opinion of Augusta National’s not yet extending (to the best of anyone’s knowledge) membership to the new I.B.M. chief executive, Virginia M. Rometty, as it did her four male predecessors.
Ironically, Crouse was in favor of sex-separation, at least when it came to the scandal of boys joining Massachusetts swim teams for girls in the name of equal opportunity, in a November 2011 story: "With every stroke they take, the boys are displacing more than water. They could knock girls off the awards podium and make it harder for girls to qualify for All-Star honors and the postseason."