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Augusta National could learn from Portmarnock

It has a familiar ring to it from an Irish perspective. A national figure becomes embroiled in controversy over membership of an all-male golf club, because she happens to be a woman.

Where recently-appointed IBM chief executive, Virginia 'Ginny' Rometty, has been the unwitting focus of newspapers at Augusta, Mary Robinson was thrown into a similar situation with Portmarnock 22 years ago on being elected President of Ireland.

Given that both clubs were anticipating flak, it has to be said that whatever the eventual outcome at Augusta National, Portmarnock handled matters rather better. For a start, they made no attempt to avoid my inquiries back then, and had prepared a reasonable response.

In sharp contrast, Augusta chairman Billy Payne clearly lost his composure when subjected to predictable, if incisive, questions last Wednesday, repeatedly taking refuge in the mantra "that is a membership issue and I'm not going to answer it." One of the more interesting reactions to his discomfiture came, ironically, in Thursday morning's Augusta Chronicle which happens to be owned by long-time club member Billy Morris.

Under the headline 'Membership questions leave Payne with mixed message', correspondent Scott Michaux wrote: "Augusta has every legal right to associate with whomever it chooses. Nobody has to respect its choice, but you must respect its right. Whether it's the right thing for an entity concerned about 'growing the game' to exclude half the world's population from membership is another argument. It is a weak limb the club is perched on.

"Public discussion 10 years ago ended up leaning towards Augusta National's right to be a private club. But public sentiment is often quick to evolve on matters of social conscience."

All the while, Rometty has been placed in an unenviable position, simply because of her admirable business acumen. She is the first woman in 100 years to become CEO of IBM. And it so happens that her four male predecessors were invited to become members of Augusta, where IBM is one of the main Masters sponsors.

A particularly unfortunate consequence, from her standpoint, was outlined in Christine Brennan's column in USA Today. It seems Brennan e-mailed her on the matter and got no reply. The columnist then revealed: "I have known her (Rometty) since we were undergraduates at Northwestern and we both now serve on the 73-member board of trustees of our alma mater. We've never discussed Augusta.

"I don't blame Rometty for not getting back in touch. The last person to talk in this column about Augusta's discriminatory membership policies was US Olympic Committee CEO Lloyd Ward, one of the very few African-American males to ever be a member of the club. Next week will be the 10-year anniversary of the phone conversation in which Ward told me that he wanted 'to have influence from the inside' to change Augusta. That didn't go so well. His words infuriated then-Augusta chairman (Hootie) Johnson and it wasn't long before Ward was no longer either the USOC chief or a member of Augusta National.

"Ward's comments in my column were read by (Martha) Burk, triggering the national debate on Augusta's discriminatory membership policy, with Johnson uttering the infamous phrase that he wouldn't be pressured at 'the point of a bayonet' to bring a woman into Augusta."

The great weakness of Payne's position was that his stonewalling came after he had outlined the financial help the club was giving towards the growth of golf worldwide, largesse which one assumes is not without tax benefits. As he grandly put it: "Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation."

His position is especially surprising, given his former role as president and CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympics. But the feeling is that Payne is hamstrung on the issue because of the continued influence of 81-year-old Hootie Johnson, now chairman emeritus of the club.

And what of Mary Robinson? The assumption at the time of her election was that all Irish presidents were automatically given honorary membership of Portmarnock. Not so. The club pointed out that Patrick Hillery, Mrs Robinson's predecessor, was so honoured "because of his active involvement in the game and his existing membership of certain clubs (including Portmarnock)." This did not apply to any of the other five, former presidents. They further pointed out that honorary life membership was limited to "existing members of the club or to personalities who have given a specific service to the game." If Mrs Robinson was to be honoured, she would first have to become an ordinary member of the club, which "would have been impossible under the rules which restrict membership to gentlemen properly elected."

Portmarnock's right to exist as such a club was later confirmed by the courts, when their status was challenged by the Equality Authority.

On the other hand, Augusta National's membership policy is so secretive that the only way one can identify a member is if he's seen wearing a green jacket. And there is no indication that a women's version of the garment has been ordered recently.

Sunday Indo Sport