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The Augusta National Golf Club may finally break with its men-only tradition this year because of one woman, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.
Since its opening in 1933 the Augusta National Golf Club has never admitted a woman to its green-jacketed ranks. However, the exclusive club has traditionally bestowed membership to the CEOs of The Masters three corporate sponsors, one of which is the now female-led IBM.
Club officials haven't said what they'll do in regards to membership for Rometty, who does play golf.
This is not the first time the Augusta's male-only membership has raised controversy. Ten years ago, Martha Burk, then the chair of National Council of Women's Organizations, squared off against club President William "Hootie" Johnson in a failed attempt to get the club to admit women members. Burk and others protested outside the gates and attempted to get sponsors to drop their support of the tournament, prompting Johnson to respond that Augusta's policies would not be forced to change "at the point of a bayonet."
The club broadcast the Master's Tournament for several years without commercials to avoid any pressure from sponsors.
Burk weighed in on the recent controversy, telling ESPN, "IBM is in a bigger bind than the club," Burk said. "The club trashed their image years ago. IBM is a corporation. They ought to care about the brand, and they ought to care about what people think. And if they're not careful, they might undermine their new CEO."
She advised IBM to "draw a line in the sand" by saying – "We're either going to pull our sponsorship and membership and any ancillary activities we support with the tournament, or the club is going to have to honor our CEO the way they have in the past."
Rometty's predecessor Sam Palmisano is a member of the club, along with the CEOs of the tournament's two other major sponsors, Exxon Mobil and AT&T. According to a list published by USA Today in 2002, the previous three IBM CEOs, Louis Gertsner, John Akers and John Open were also members. Declining to offer a membership to the new CEO will send a very a clear message, No Girls Allowed.
The club's current president, Billy Pane, sidestepped the controversy today at a press conference.
"All issues of membership remain the private deliberations of the membership. That statement remains accurate," Payne said. "We don't talk about our private deliberations. We especially don't talk about them when a named candidate is part of the question."
IBM and other companies pressured golf clubs in the past to end discrimination. In 1990 IBM and other sponsors succeeded in getting Alabama's Shoal Creek club to admit black members.
At the end of 2011, there were 12 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, according to Fortune magazine.