It would be absolutely fascinating to be privy to the discussions currently going on amongst the inner circle of the Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia, where the US Masters Golf tournament has just concluded. The Club has found itself rather uncomfortably at the centre of a gender equality storm this past week, as one of their traditions – to offer membership to the chief executives of the companies sponsoring the Masters – clashed with one of its other traditions, ie not to admit female members. This year, IBM, one of the three corporate sponsors of the tournament, has a female chief executive, Virginia Rometty. A dilemma for the Golf Club. Will they or won’t they change their policy?
People and institutions have of course weighed into the debate, the most powerful voice coming from President Obama himself, who let it be known via a spokesman that his personal opinion was that women should be admitted. And while there are arguments that sit on the other side of this particular fence – that groups should be free under the American Constitution to choose their own members – and while some women golfers see this as an irrelevance (the more important issue being that women’s sport generally is not valued as much as men’s sport), and while, too, Virginia Rometty does not herself appear to be a particularly avid golfer, President Obama has a point.
In this day and age, while we might still accept the existence of private groups of people doing their own thing in their own friendship circles, and not worry whether these are exclusively male or female, once we bring these groups on to a public stage, and set them up as world-class institutions, then we have to have an eye to the values that they are exhibiting to the world. Clubs like the Augusta National Golf Club could very easily have a choice as to whether to host the Masters or not; I can imagine that other clubs would fall over themselves for the opportunity. Surely with this right to host comes a responsibility that extends beyond the game of golf itself? Surely the members of the Club can see that the time has come to make gender a non-issue and admit women?
Virginia Rometty is not setting herself up as the Rosa Parks of golf, as suggested in The Times this week, and I don’t expect her to do so. In our civilised society, these things can be sorted clearly and swiftly with discussion and simple argument. But it would be an opportunity missed if she didn’t at least express some kind of expectation to be offered membership, and if the Augusta National Golf Club didn’t respond with grace.