Wednesday, April 1, 2009


In my columnizing days I had a round of important sports events I covered annually. It included the World Series, Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four, Kentucky Derby, U.S. Open golf and tennis championships and the Masters Golf Tournament. Now that I’m retired I’m sometimes asked if I miss going to any of them. I give the most-emphatic “yes” to the Masters.

The main reason I loved the event was where it was played—- the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. The place is so beautiful they could charge admission even if they weren’t playing golf there. The grass is the greenest, pine needles soften the foot paths and the dogwood, azalea and other flowering plants are in glorious bloom during the tourney’s early-April staging.

In the odd year when the weather doesn’t cooperate, no problem-- the club picks up the phone and orders potted plants by the thousands to be arranged around its course. Those guys are so rich they think nothing of transplanting fully grown trees if they think it might improve the looks of their pampered acres.

Additionally, Augusta National treats the press well. The press center is first rate, the food is okay and everyone connected with the club is cooperative and Southern-gracious. Favored reporters (I was one) were allowed to buy (for $90 at the time) a coveted tournament pass for an accompanying friend. My wife Susie, who always made the trip with me, doesn’t care much for golf but would use it to ogle the fairway flora on opening-day Thursdays, and I’d have golf-loving pals down for the other three days. That created much good will and some nice IOUs.

But—and there’s always a “but” in pieces like these—the fly in the ointment was buzzard-sized. It was the knowledge that, once the tournament was over, I and my fellow scribes would be shooed from the club like so many aluminum-siding salesmen. I could think of several reasons that would bar me from membership, and there probably were others I wasn’t aware of. You have to be on the inside to get the full flavor of things like that.

Other golf tournaments are held at “exclusive” country clubs, but ANGC stands out even in that company. That’s because of the standing of the Masters, the prominence of many of the club’s members and the code of silence that surrounds its policies and practices. Clifford Roberts, the dour banker who founded the club in 1933 with the “Grand Slam” champion Bobby Jones, long exercised dictatorial control over every aspect of its operation, and any member who publicly questioned him could expect to see his locker emptied forthwith. Roberts died more than 30 years ago but his successors as chairman continue to exercise such authority. George Schultz, Melvin Laird and Sam Nunn spoke out forcefully on matters of national import while helping lead our great republic, but they and their fellow members keep their mouths shut when the subject is Augusta National. They shame the Mafia when it comes to observing omerta.

For most of its history ANGC closely followed a 3W (white, WASPy and wealthy) membership policy, and is men-only to boot. A dozen or so years ago, under pressure, it admitted a small handful of blacks, but it pretty much has resisted further change. The National Council of Women’s Organizations (which, its name suggests, doesn’t object to women-only groups), launched a full-frontal assault on it in 2001 and 2002, but was repulsed. ANGC may admit a woman or two some day, but in its own sweet time.

Lots of others are on the outside looking in. A few years ago USA Today published the names of the club’s 292 members along with the ages and corporate affiliations of most. Surnames can be misleading but only two could readily be identified as Jewish and just three others ended in vowels, indicating a paucity of men of Italian or Hispanic origins. Names pointing to Southern Europe, Asia or the Middle East were similarly lacking

The most-discriminated-against group besides women were men under age 40: there was just one of those, and just five under age 50, for heaven’s sake. Golf pro-ams teem with show-biz types, but no one prominent in Hollywood or the theater was on the ANGC roster. A few members listed academic affiliations but it’s safe to assume they were administrators, not profs. No artists, musicians or men of letters (much less journalists) were included. High-tech entrepeneurs also were absent, except for Bill Gates. The dominant profile was that of a 70ish WASP who made his pile lawyering, in an old-economy corporation or in one of those banks that lately have been screwing things up for all of us. It doesn’t sound like scintillating company.

There are two ways to react to this. One is to grab a picket sign and head for the ANGC gates when Masters play begins next Thursday. The other is to join Groucho Marx in declaring that we wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have us as a member. I favor the latter course, if only because you don’t have to leave home to take it.

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