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Golf’s Masters Facing Male-Only Dilemma With New IBM CEO

Virginia "Ginni" Rometty, senior vice president and group executive for sales at International Business Machines Corp., at a company event. Photographer: Graham Carlow/IBM via Bloomberg

Will International Business Machines Corp.’s Ginni Rometty be able to wear a green jacket at the Masters Tournament?

As Augusta National Golf Club prepares to host the competition next week, it faces a quandary: The club hasn’t admitted a woman as a member since its founding eight decades ago, yet it has historically invited the chief executive officer of IBM, one of three Masters sponsors. Since the company named Rometty to the post this year, Augusta will have to break tradition either way.

IBM holds a rarefied position at the Augusta, Georgia, course. The company has a hospitality cabin near the 10th hole, beside co-sponsors Exxon Mobil Corp. and AT&T Inc. The companies’ male CEOs have been able to don the club’s signature green member blazers while hosting clients. Non-members, who don’t wear the jackets, must be accompanied by a member to visit the course or play a round.

“They have a dilemma on many levels,” said Marcia Chambers, senior research scholar in law and journalist in residence at Yale University Law School. “If there’s been a tradition of certain CEOs, then they should look at this new CEO in the same way. The only thing that makes her any different is her gender.”

Augusta, which owns and hosts the Masters, sets its own rules as a private club and has resisted calls for change in the past. Augusta didn’t have a black member until 1990, when it extended an invitation to Gannett Co. television President Ron Townsend, who still belongs.

Membership Rules

Rometty, who does play golf, though not frequently, inherited the sponsorship from predecessor Sam Palmisano. IBM is featured in the tournament’s TV commercials and runs its website, mobile-phone applications and media-center technology. Palmisano serves on Augusta’s technology tournament committee. He remains IBM’s chairman -- a role Rometty is likely also to assume upon his retirement.

Steve Ethun, a Masters Tournament spokesman, declined to comment, citing a policy that forbids membership-related discussions. Edward Barbini, a spokesman for Armonk, New York-based IBM, also declined to comment. Augusta members are never officially identified outside the exclusive greens; known members contacted for this story declined to comment.

Augusta carefully cultivates its image. Running instead of walking on the course -- for a good vantage point during the tournament or a bathroom break -- is forbidden. Organizers of the Masters refer to fans as “patrons.”

Very Private Party

Entertaining clients at the Masters is “a very private cocktail party,” said Casey Alexander, who analyzes the golf industry as a director of equity research at New York-based Gilford Securities Inc. “It’s very different than the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby. You don’t see those big corporate tents. You don’t see logos lining the fairways and that’s the way they want it.”

Rometty’s promotion puts the club and the company in an “interesting position” that’s likely to be tackled privately, said Patrick Rishe, a sports business professor at Webster University in St. Louis. Private clubs are “clever in terms of the language they use and their rule books,” and may simply add an exception for top executives of key sponsors, he said.

Billy Payne, who succeeded William “Hootie” Johnson as chairman of the tournament and the golf club in 2006, has said he has “no specific timetable” on possibly ending the all-male membership, which has been enforced since the club was founded by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts on the grounds of the former Fruitland Nurseries in 1933. The first Masters Tournament was held a year later, and in 1937 Augusta members began wearing green jackets -- a trademark differentiator from guests and golf fans who buy tickets.

Payne’s Olympic Effort

Payne’s predecessor Johnson, now 81, ended his 2003 annual gathering by saying the club’s position on women wouldn’t change “if I drop dead right now.”

As the chief organizer of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Payne was known as being a progressive leader. His Olympic organizing team included influential women Ginger Watkins, Linda Stephenson and Cindy Fowler. The group is credited with convincing the International Olympic Committee to bring the games to Georgia’s capital with its first bid -- the only city in 50 years to win with its debut effort.

When Payne took over as chairman of Augusta National, he vowed to help shed the club’s “crusty” image. In recent years, the tournament has made changes, including a ticketing program for children. In 2010, Payne publicly criticized the extramarital affairs of four-time Masters winner Tiger Woods.

“Our hero did not live up to the expectations of a role model that we sought for our children,” he said.

IBM Precedent

Augusta declined to provide a current membership list for this story. A 2010 partial list obtained by Bloomberg News and 2004 documents published by the Augusta Chronicle and USA Today show the last four IBM CEOs were members, beginning with John R. Opel, who ran the company from 1981 to 1985 and died last year. John F. Akers, IBM’s chief from 1985 to 1993, and Louis V. Gerstner, who helped turn around IBM as CEO from 1993 to 2002, also were members.

Palmisano wasn’t listed as a member in 2004, a year after taking over IBM. That suggests the club doesn’t always extend invitations just as new CEOs take over, raising the possibility that Rometty would be admitted later.

Unlike her golf-enthusiast predecessors, Rometty plays occasionally. She and her husband, Mark, are avid scuba divers, splitting their time between homes in White Plains, New York, and Bonita Springs, Florida.

Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson is a member, as is AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. Ed Whitacre, Stephenson’s predecessor, is a member and in December gave Stephenson his place as a director on the PGA Tour’s board -- professional golf’s inner circle.

IBM’s Technology

At the Masters, IBM provides reporters with individual ThinkPad laptops in the tournament’s media center. The computers provide statistics and stream video from the course throughout the tournament. In 2010, IBM introduced 3D footage of the tournament on the website it runs for the Masters.

“All of those platforms are intended to make the patron feel as though they are experiencing the Masters just as if they were at Augusta National,” said Barbini, the IBM spokesman. IBM’s media center technology “allows each journalist to access anything they need to file a story from a seat in the media center -- including statistics, interviews and play-specific video highlights.”

IBM’s official sponsorship began 10 years ago, though it had been involved earlier. The company has run the website since 1996.

Time to Change?

Augusta has faced pressure to change its policy on women before. Martha Burk, then the president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, led a protest outside the golf course’s gates during the 2003 Masters.

The club’s refusal to reconsider female membership prompted the resignations of then-Treasury Secretary nominee John Snow and former CBS Corp. Chief Executive Officer Thomas Wyman, who called the policy “pigheaded.” Wyman died about five weeks later. Snow was secretary of the treasury under President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2006, and now is chairman of Cerberus Capital Management LP, an investment firm.

Rishe, the Webster University professor, said Augusta may resist the pressure again.

“It’s a private club, and I don’t think they’re really concerned about how others perceive them,” he said. “Their ratings will not rise and fall based on how people view this particular topic. Their ratings will rise and fall if Tiger Woods is at the top of his game, if Tiger and Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy or some combination of them happen to be in the mix on the final day of the tournament.”

Still, Chambers said IBM’s decision to name Rometty the first female CEO in the company’s 100-year history offers a rare chance for Augusta and its chairman.

“Billy Payne, with his history of inclusion and his role with the Olympics, of all people, should finally take the plunge,” Chambers said. “This is a good opportunity for him to do it.”

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