Congratulations to Augusta National Club for finally doing the right thing and admitting its first two female members: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore. Having said that, the home of the Masters tournament has no one to blame but itself for the 10-year debacle that tarnished its image, cost it millions in sponsorship dollars and overshadowed the many good works the club does for charities and other groups. Make no mistake. This week’s news by Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson was a mea culpa by Augusta — and a victory for Martha Burk who challenged the all-male club’s membership policies a decade ago. Augusta made itself look bad for 10 years. Admitting the club’s first two women, shows they want to move forward and finally put it to rest. From an image management and Crisis PR standpoint, Augusta shot itself in the foot, time and again. I know because I played a part in a storythat’s lasted on and off for 10 years and will probably crop up again as the British Open heads to the all-male Muirfield Club in 2013.
Let’s recap. This battle began when women’s rights advocate Burk wrote a letter to former club chairman Hootie Johnson in 2002 asking why the club discriminated against women and urging them to review their membership policies. It was the kind of letter activist groups send out regularly. And regularly get little more than a polite response But without knowing it, Burk had struck Augusta where it lives. Pride. This was the invitation-only club of all clubs that turned down would-be members like Bill Gates, that bossed around sponsors like IBM, that famously kept the shiny shoe boys at CBS in New York on a one-year contract for decades so they could flex their muscles over which announcers worked their telecasts. The green jacket was the perk of all perks for the world’s richest and most powerful men. And the one thing they couldn’t buy. They had to be invited to join. The home of the Masters was used to obedience from members, sponsors, TV networks How dare Burk tell Augusta National what to do? The rest is history. Rather than handling the letter privately, Johnson issued an almost hysterical public statement declaring the club would not not be pressured at the point of a “bayonet.”
He then compounded his mistake by effectively firing the club’s three TV sponsors: — IBM, Citigroup and Coca-Cola — to “protect” them from being publicly pressured by Burke. That cost the club millions as the Masters went commercial-free in 2003 and 2004. It was great for TV viewers but bad for the club. Johnson was trying to make the point the private club had the right to determine its own membership. He was right about that. But he completely underestimated the media and the public’s interest in the story. He put the club’s 300 or so privacy-loving members squarely under the microscope. The question of who did and didn’t belong to Augusta had always been a mystery. As Paul Newman asked in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Who are those guys? At USA TODAY, Julie Ward, deputy managing editor of the SPORTS section, decided to find out. I was working as a business reporter in the MONEY section. The Masters was and still is my favorite golf tournament. Ward asked my editors if SPORTS could use me on the story since I would recognize the names of corporate heavy hitters who may or may not be members and have contacts at the Fortune 500 companies they owned or ran. I got the confidential ist of members. I hovered over the fax machine in our New York bureau, ripped it out, then conferred with my good friend and MONEY colleague Greg Farrell (now at Bloomberg). The list read like a Who’s Who’s of the Fortune 500, including names like Jack Welch of General Electric, Sanford Weill of Citigroup and Sam Nunn, the former US Senator turned Coca-Cola board member. I fired it off to the paper’s headquarters in Virginia. Then Ward, Monte Lorell, Jim Welch and other editors quickly put together a crack team of reporters and editors. We spent weeks tracking down each member and trying to get them to comment for the story. Many reacted angrily. They resented being hounded by reporters. They hated being outed. They argued, accurately, that women routinely played the club as guests. But now they were being portrayed as the last bastion of sexist, Southern bigotry. They blamed Johnson for mismanaging the controversy and letting things get out of hand. I teamed with Erik Brady to write the story. Our story was the most-read of the year at USATODAY.com. It won “Best News Story” from Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE). That was the only time before or since that I know of that the paper won that award. So here we are 10 years later. Augusta is patting itself on the back, with club chairman Billy Payne calling it a “joyous occasion.” Sure. The story behind the story to me is Payne finally cleaning up the image mess his predecessor left him a decade ago. As CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo asked Monday, what’s the big deal about a bunch of “stubborn old men” finally joining the 21st century? Like Bartiromo, I’ll save the applause for later. What took you so long Augusta?