Two long-standing traditions at Augusta National Golf Club are on a collision course just a week before the institution’s biggest event of the year. The host of the Masters, one of professional golf’s most prestigious competitions, has never admitted a female member — but the club’s partnership with IBM has historically meant that the CEO of that company is offered one of the iconic green membership jackets.
The fact that IBM’s new boss, Ginni Rometty, is a woman puts the nearly 80-year-old golfing institution in a quandary: Will the club break with tradition for next week’s tournament and treat the CEO the same way as her male predecessors, or will it risk alienating a critically important sponsor?
According to a published report, IBM’s role in putting on the Masters is a central one. Big Blue provides a host of technological services to Augusta National, and has run the club’s website since 1996.
Martha Burk, a longtime critic of Augusta’s men-only policy for membership and a former chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, told the Associated Press that — although the club might not care about how its policy is perceived — IBM may be in an even more difficult position, should it be forced to choose between maintaining its valuable sponsorship of the Masters and supporting its CEO.
She added that, while the company might push for Rometty to try to sidestep the controversy by publicly declining any interest in a membership, IBM has an opportunity to force Augusta to make changes by threatening to withhold its support if Rometty isn’t treated the same way as previous CEOs.
Rometty, who became IBM’s first female CEO in late 2011, is one of a small but growing number of women to head a major technology company. Others, including Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Carol Bartz and Anne Mulcahy, have faced some gender-based controversies during their tenures, but the Masters flap could be a landmark moment for female executives in the generally male-dominated tech world.