The very public feud between a powerful women's organization and the men-only Augusta National Golf Club--home of the storied Masters Tournament--now threatens to draw in some of the biggest names in Corporate America. There is talk of national boycotts. And Masters sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Citigroup--whose chairman, Sanford I. Weill, is a member of Augusta--are being asked to take a stand. Even Tiger Woods is being criticized for suggesting that Augusta has a right to its exclusionary policies.
The fight began in mid-July, when Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), sent a private letter to William W. "Hootie" Johnson, chairman of Augusta, urging him to open the club to female membership before the 2003 Masters. Johnson's five-line response said that "further communication between us would not be productive." And he loudly and emphatically separated the Masters, a public tournament, from Augusta National, a private club.
While private clubs can admit or not admit anyone they want, counters Burk, Augusta, which owns the Masters, "has built a unique image with huge public exposure, and with that comes a higher responsibility...."
Now Burk has written to sponsors of the Masters--Citigroup, Coca-Cola, IBM, and General Motors--asking them to withdraw their support until Augusta opens its doors. If the NCWO does not get a positive response by mid-September, it is prepared to boycott company products and picket the tournament.
What impact would a continued NCWO campaign have? The NCWO, which represents 160 organizations with some 6 million members, has a long history of effecting social change. Despite that and despite the hammering that Johnson has suffered in the press, it's tough to say whether Augusta will bend. Corporations consider it a privilege to sponsor the Masters, and lots of business is done at the event. In fact, the Masters might not even need sponsors. Still, "this could be a very flammable situation" if consumers perceive that these companies are discriminatory, says sports marketing consultant Jeff Bliss of Javelin Group in Alexandria, Va.
Albert J. Tortorella, a crisis-management specialist at public-relations firm Burson-Marsteller, is more sanguine. It's hard to sustain public interest in a debate when one side is talking and the other isn't, he says.
If the campaign to open Augusta's doors gains momentum, however, the pressure will build. Says former LPGA champ Jane Blalock: "The players could do more. And Tiger could do more. But you don't want to always put the burden on Tiger. The PGA Tour as a whole should take a stand on this."
In the end, sponsors of the Masters may have to choose between prestige golf and the people who purchase more than 80% of consumer products: women. With corporate scandals continuing to rock America, that's a problem these public companies don't need.
By Toddi Gutner, with Mark Hyman