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Augusta National Takes Heat Off Sponsors With Addition Of Women

Forbes, August 20, 2012

By Kurt Badenhausen

Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters golf tournament, announced that two women were invited to join the historically all-male bastion, ahead of when the club opens for a new season in October. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore accepted their invitations, ending a firestorm that ramped up in 2002 when Martha Burk from the National Council of Women’s Organizations admonished Augusta for its exclusionary policy.

The addition of Rice and Moore to Augusta relieves the pressure on the Masters’ three sponsors: AT&T, Exxon Mobil and IBM, who have had to defend their endorsement of the renowned tournament at a club that excludes women. The three pay an estimated $18 million a year, according to IEG, a sponsorship consultant. The Masters could generated millions more in sponsorships, but limits the event to only the three above.

IBM began its sponsorship of the Masters 10 years ago and runs the website. IBM’s last four CEOs were invited to join Augusta National as members, but the club faced a dilemma this year when Virginia Rometty took the reins of the tech giant in January. Exxon’s current CEO, Rex Tillerson is a member, as is AT&T chief Randall Stephenson. Rometty plays golf, but she did not receive an invitation to join the club.

IBM and Augusta National chairman Billy Payne repeatedly faced questions at this April’s event about a club membership for Rometty, who appeared at the tournament in a pink jacket, instead of the customary green jackets favored by members. The controversy is a distraction for IBM’s sponsorship and the tournament itself. Exxon and AT&T also must annually debate the trade-off of sponsoring the most prestigious golf tournament in the world, versus the flak they receive for the endorsement.

Augusta does things at its own pace and was never going to be bullied into admitting a women to the club. It refused to show all 18 holes of the Masters on TV up until 2002 to protect the allure of Augusta. Payne’s predecessor, Hootie Johnson, famously said at the time of Burk’s protest that Augusta National might admit a women, “but not at the point of a bayonet.” Eight months before another round of questions, protests and calls for boycotts, Augusta National put the membership issue to rest.

AT&T’s Stephenson issued a statement after the announcement: “As a sponsor of The Masters, we applaud today’s historic announcement by Augusta National and warmly welcome Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore as members of Augusta National.”

No doubt, all of the Masters’ sponsors applaud the announcement. Their investment just got more valuable.