AUGUSTA, Ga. — Gary Player was camped out under the big oak tree behind the clubhouse, signing autographs and posing for pictures, as he did 50 years ago. At the many snack stands scattered around Augusta National, pimento cheese sandwiches in green wrappers were selling for 1962 prices — a buck fifty. A place stuck in a time warp, just like the men in green jackets who run it.
They gathered Wednesday for their annual State of the Masters report, and, despite some dying azaleas that will make this year’s Masters less colorful, it seems that things never have been better in one of the last bastions of exclusivity in sports.
The Cadillacs out front no longer have tail fins the length of belly putters, and the players don’t smoke anymore between shots. But the snacks still are cheap, the old-timers keep coming back, and the green jacket for winning remains golf’s most coveted prize.
One other thing hasn’t changed: Membership in the club is by invitation only, and women, it seems, need not apply.
Why that’s become an issue again this year largely is a matter of circumstance — the recent appointment of a woman executive to head IBM, one of the main sponsors of the Masters. As far as anyone knows, Virginia Rometty hasn’t asked for her own green jacket, but since the past four CEOs at IBM, all male, were members, she goes to the top of the list by default.
Hardly reason to take to the streets, as activist Martha Burk did a decade ago in an ill-fated attempt to open Augusta National’s membership to women. Even the most ardent feminists would be hard-pressed to march on behalf of a millionaire business executive who lives in the rarified air of the privileged elite.
Lee Westwood found the whole thing amusing.
"What gender issue? I’m a man," the Englishman said.
Still, two decades after a black man finally was given a green jacket to wear, the basic issue is one of equality. I’m not going to become a member of Augusta National, and odds are you aren’t, either, for reasons that have nothing to do with race or sex. But to automatically exclude half the world’s population because it’s female seems so 1962.
Not to the men in the green jackets. They bristle when the subject is raised and immediately hide behind the only protective cover they know: It’s their club, and they alone will decide who belongs.
"As has been the case whenever that question is asked, all issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said Wednesday. "That statement remains accurate, and that remains my statement."
Fair enough, I guess. Rich people can be picky when it comes to who they share a tee box with. And, in the end, it is their club, and they can do what they wish.
Problem is, when Payne said that, he barely had finished talking about Augusta National’s role in golf and its responsibilities for helping grow the number of people who play the game. The club wants to get more people playing, he said, especially the girls and boys who are the future of the game.
As it stands, those boys can dream of one day wearing green jackets themselves. The girls can’t.
That led to an exchange between reporters and Payne that, while testy, bordered on comical. Pressed several times on what he would tell his granddaughters about their chances of joining the club, Payne finally answered:
"My conversations with my granddaughters are also personal."
OK. What would Payne tell a reporter’s daughters?
"I don’t know your daughters," Payne replied.
If Rometty wanted to make it an issue, she certainly could, but so far she and IBM, at least publicly, seem satisfied with being one of the three major sponsors of the Masters and leaving the push for change to others. And, as a pressing social issue, equality at Augusta National doesn’t rank up there with making sure every child in America grows up able to read and write.
Burk is watching this one from afar, not about to get burned again. Still, she couldn’t help but tweak IBM and the green jackets who caused her so much grief.
"I think it’s astounding that one of the largest corporations in the world is having their strings pulled by a bunch of old guys in Augusta," she said.
That’s the way things happen at the Masters. No one dares tell the guardians of Augusta National what to do, or when they should do it. It might be a benevolent dictatorship, but no one doubts it is a dictatorship. By the time Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy tee off today, the IBM issue likely won’t matter much. Attention will turn to the golf, and the issue will be forgotten for at least another year.
Best of all, the pimento cheese sandwiches still will be only a buck fifty.
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.