AUGUSTA, Georgia – Augusta National Golf Club used to be an oasis unlike any other, a fenced-in sanctuary of golf excellence, natural beauty, pervasive racism and rampant sexism. As the world slowly changed outside its gates, time stood still on the inside, which is just how the old men of Augusta National wanted it.
The first Black man became a member in 1990. The first two women members were announced in 2012. No one knows exactly how many Black men and how many women are members today because the club won’t say, but it’s certainly not many, and still a small percentage of the club’s estimated total membership, which is believed to be at least 300.
If Augusta National were just any old private club, we probably never would have known or cared about its egregious behavior. But it’s not. It is one of the most famous golf courses on earth, one of the game’s most powerful stakeholders and the very public face of golf for one week every year as the host of the Masters. This year, that week is this week.
For several generations, the white men who ran the club either forgot, ignored or willfully disregarded the vastness of their responsibilities, other than to do a bang-up job of encouraging more white men to play golf.
But over the past couple of years, and especially in 2020, current events have conspired with the more open-minded younger men now leading the club to begin to make amends.
In 2018, in his first Masters press conference as the club’s new chairman, Fred Ridley stunningly announced that the club was going to hold an annual women’s amateur championship right before the Masters. Just this week, Ridley announced the following: Lee Elder, who became the first Black man to play in the Masters in 1975, will be an honorary starter with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player at the 2021 tournament; the club will fund a women’s golf program at Paine College, an historically Black college in Augusta, and endow scholarships for male and female golfers at the school in Elder’s name; and the club along with corporate partners AT&T, Bank of America and IBM will make a combined contribution of $10 million to spur redevelopment in under-served urban neighborhoods near the club.
“We, like all organizations, are acutely aware of our past, and … you do learn from looking back,” Ridley said this week. “I know any time, at least in my experience since I’ve been chairman, any time we undertake something … we always ask ourselves, why didn’t we do it earlier and I think it’s a fair question and I think it’s good to ask that question. I think all we can do at this point is to look forward and to realize that we have been blessed with tremendous resources to do many things, and we’re going to use those resources in the right way.”
Taking a walk down memory lane, it was Ridley’s predecessor, Billy Payne, who brought in the club’s first two women members eight years ago. And it was Payne’s predecessor, Hootie Johnson, who in 2002 uttered the infamous words that the club would not be pressured to invite women members “at the point of a bayonet.”
By way of explanation, Johnson was born in 1931, Payne in 1947 and Ridley in 1952.
Asked if he is satisfied that the club’s public efforts at diversity and inclusion are reflected in its membership, Ridley replied, “I don’t think satisfied would be the right word. I mean, I don’t think one should ever be satisfied with any objective that you’re trying to accomplish because perfection is never attained. I would say that we do have a diverse membership. That has been an increasing fact over the past few years. It will continue to be an increasing fact during my chairmanship.”
As time marches on, so too does progress, even in the most unlikely places.