Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Women at Augusta

For almost a decade, Jerry Seinfeld rode the wave of a 30-minute sit com. According to Seinfeld, “The show was a lot about nothing.”
The golf world was dominated this week by the announcement that after nearly 80 years Augusta National Golf Club would be admitting its first two female members. On Monday, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne announced that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and business executive Darla Moore will be the first female members of the club.
Was this a lot about nothing?
The greatest thing about America is that we have choices. That freedom of choice extends to all entities. For years, service organizations, health clubs, sororities, fraternities and many businesses have decided who can be included or excluded.
Augusta National has been highly criticized for its exclusion of women as members. The club allowed women to play, but they couldn’t join. Payne’s announcement came 23 years after Augusta National admitted its first black member in 1990. The PGA of America had an exclusionary clause in our by-laws prohibiting blacks from being members until 1960. Were Augusta National and the PGA overdue when it came to changing their philosophies? No question, yes.
But, when it comes to golf there are many examples of clubs that appeal to certain niches of players. Butler National GC in Chicago and the Connecticut Golf Club are two examples of men’s only clubs in this country. I personally know the head professionals at both facilities. They are good guys. These are outstanding clubs and golfers in their locales have plenty of choices on where to play.
The Ladies Golf Club of Toronto is North America’s only remaining private club for women. Look on their web site and you will read, “Established by women for women.”  The Ladies GC of Toronto was established in 1924 and actual play began August 23, 1926. That is eight years before Augusta National even opened.
According to the club information, “It wasn’t easy for female golfers to get access to tee times and practice facilities. After playing in women’s clubs in the U.S. and Britain, Ada Mackenzie set about creating a women’s golf club in Toronto. After much work and determination, she succeeded.”
Ada Mackenzie was Canada’s female version of Bobby Jones, one of Augusta National’s founders. She won four Canadian “Open” Amateur Championships. She won several Toronto Golf Club ladies’ championships and was acknowledged as one of the best female golfers in North America and England. In 1938 she won every major golf championship in Canada and was named female athlete of the year by the Canadian Press. She continued to play well into her senior years, winning eight Canadian Ladies’ Senior Golf Association Championships. She played her last competitive round at the age of 78. 
It’s interesting that Ladies Golf Club of Toronto has been such a well-kept secret. Eight years the elder of Augusta National and even the best informed in golf circles would have no clue that an “all ladies” golf club existed in North America. I could not resist making a phone call to the Ladies Golf Club and inquire if they were considering a restructure of membership policies after this week’s events.
“Every club has to look at its market offering. We service the special needs of women in golf and their hospitality requirements. Every day is ladies day,” said Julian Cusworth, General Manager. “The Augusta decision will impact golf as a whole. We do allow men to play on our annual playing package.
“It’s really quite simple. Every club services a particular market,” he said. “There are family clubs. There are many all men’s clubs. Every business has to define its market and pursue that.”
While the Ladies Golf Club does allow men access, prime tee times are limited to women. Men are allowed to play before 8 a.m. and after Noon. Men must be sponsored by a female member. The club currently has 420 full golf female members and 110 female social members. 115 men have access to the course through the Guest Card Holder Packages.
I asked Julian if the Ladies Golf Club of Toronto had ever been criticized for its exclusionary policies.
“Actually in 2003, Sports Illustrated wrote a very critical article. It was tied to the Martha Burk controversy at Augusta National. It was quite an article,” recalls Cusworth. “We shouldn’t be compared to Augusta National in anyway. There was some humor to the article and we were certainly a benefactor of receiving that type of awareness through a publication like Sports Illustrated.”
Cusworth indicated that Ladies Golf Club has no intention of modifying its membership policies based on Augusta’s decision.  Everything at ladies’ has been carefully crafted to meet the needs of its Members, from beginning lessons, to the tasteful menu in the dining room and its elegant clubhouse.
So was this week at Augusta National a lot about nothing?
“The National” has been recognized as the most powerful private golf club in America. Its membership roster is dominated by corporate executives who control many aspect of the U.S. economy. Presidential campaigns have been launched inside these hallowed grounds. Monday’s announcement by Payne will only strengthen Augusta National’s position as THE most powerful club in the U.S.
Rice needs no introduction. Moore is vice president of Rainwater, Inc. a private investment company, and founder and chair of the Palmetto institute, a nonprofit think tank aimed at bolstering per capita income in South Carolina. She is also the founder and chair of The Charleston parks Conservancy, a foundation focused on enhancing the parks and public spaces of Charleston, SC.
Chairman Payne’s next difficult decision will be whether or not to add a set of “Forward Tees”. Currently, Augusta National only has Tournament and Member tees. He will no doubt once again make the right call.
This was a lot about something. There’s never been a better week to wear a Green Jacket.         

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