There’s a PR crisis brewing at this year’s Masters golf tournament.
As usual, IBM is among the tournament’s three sponsors. The company’s last four CEOs—all men—have been members of Augusta National Golf Club, where the tournament is held, and they’ve worn the club’s iconic green blazers. IBM’s current CEO, Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, is a woman.
Thing is, Augusta hasn’t admitted a woman to its ranks in eight decades. (In 1990, it began admitting African-Americans—as long as they weren’t female.)
UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal is reporting
that Rometty is expected to attend the tournament.
The media, led by Bloomberg News
, raised the issue last week, and at the annual news conference on the eve of the tournament, Augusta Chairman Billy Payne was questioned about the issue. “All issues of membership remain the private deliberations of the membership,” he said. “That statement remains accurate.”
In other words, he refused to comment.
According to Businessweek
, Augusta reviewed its policy in 2002, but the club’s then Chairman Hootie Johnson said he wouldn’t be “bullied” into making a decision.
On Thursday morning, the matter became a hot topic in the media, and it appears Augusta’s refusal to address the issue publicly could be a serious miscalculation.
“You'd think that Augusta would be worried about what it would look like to be so publicly dismissive of the CEO of one of their crucial sponsors,” wrote Cassie Murdoch on the blog Jezebel
Gini Dietrich, a PR executive in Chicago, weighed in on her blog Spin Sucks
“If it were me, I wouldn’t want my company to support an organization that is so deliberately discriminatory, no matter how steeped in tradition it is. It’s not about money or PR or awareness. It’s about what’s right.
“Then again, I’m a woman so of course I’m biased.”
As sponsor, IBM handles the tournaments websites, apps, and media center, according to Jezebel
. It even gives laptops to the reporters covering the event. Businessweek said that sponsorship probably costs IBM about $10 million, and in return it gets to host clients at the event.
The reaction to the news on social media has been a mix of activism and excitement. A number of tweets are commenting on the backwards tradition
of not allowing women, with some calling for a boycott. Other tweets—accompanied by the hashtag #Masters
—contain giddy enthusiasm for the tournament to begin.
Augusta may sidestep the issue as it’s done in the past; however, national media coverage has focused on the “war on women
,” which means the topic will likely stay in the news for at least the weekend.