Augusta National Opens to Women: What Is That and Who Cares?

Augusta National Opens to Women: What Is That and Who Cares?

This week, one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the world, Augusta National, announced that it will admit female members for the first time.

And not just any women: We’re talking about former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and business exec Darla Moore.

The news begets a few questions:

  • Wait, there are still clubs out there that exclude women? Is that even legal?
  • Sure, it’s great that women are being included, but why does this even matter?
  • Is this really about golf?


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Yes, It’s Legal

Located in Georgia and host to the annual Masters tournament, Augusta National opened in 1932, and didn’t allow its first black member until 1990, under pressure by the PGA tour. Before this week, the club was notoriously mum on questions of membership. As a private club, it doesn’t have to allow anyone to join, and members can only join if invited—there isn’t even a way to apply. Current members include Warren Buffett (the investing tycoon), Carl Sanders (former Governor of Georgia) and Bill Gates (you know who he is).

The club was previously under scrutiny because it has a tradition of inviting the CEO of IBM to join—but IBM’s current CEO is a woman. At that time, Augusta National’s chairman deflected questions and IBM’s CEO Virginia Rommetty wasn’t invited.

The acceptance of two women is being heralded as a coup for the women’s movement, but that brings us to our next question …

Who Cares?

It’s a cliché to imagine old white men golfing while deciding matters of global importance, but there may be something to it: Sports Illustrated’s notes that golf is “the martini lunch of the modern workforce” and one source says, “Think of it as a six-hour sales call.” As The Economist points out, golf is perfect for business because you only spend a small portion of the long game hitting the ball, leaving lots of time for chitchat.

One study found that bosses who don’t golf make an average of 17% less than ones who do.

So, when we talk about how men get more raises and even tiny little factors like your last name and who your boss’s wife is make a difference in your salary, the golf course effect appears non-negligible.

Golf courses are the scene of many key decisions, from talks about a company’s board, to national policy decisions to Hollywood relationships that build careers—Justin Timberlake, Will Smith and Mel Gibson all golf at the same club, and Rob Light, from the management company CAA, is said to have recently been invited to join Augusta National.

More Than Just Golf Clubs

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suppose that a lot of high-powered people know a lot of other high-powered people, and that their networking and decisions can have ramifications for their employees, the economy and the world at large.

Here’s a sampling of the semi-secret societies where powerful people congregate:

  • Bohemian Grove: A California campground where some of the world’s most powerful men (and only men) congregate for two weeks every July. Membership includes business moguls, musicians and every Republican and some Democratic U.S. presidents since 1923. During a Manhattan Project meeting there, members came up with a plan that led to the atomic bomb.
  • Belizean Grove: Belizean Grove is a similar gathering of powerful women, each of whom has been tapped by an existing member. It was founded in 1999 but gained significant notoriety when people found that Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court justice, was a member (she’s quit since). One project these high-powered women are working on is to get a woman elected president. Full disclosure: Two powerful women who have served on LearnVest’s board are members.
  • Social Clubs: Prominent New York City social clubs like the Union Club, Century Association and Norwood Club are places where the wealthy and powerful hang out in luxury, including libraries, spas, rooftop bars and more. Entrance fees range from a mere few thousand dollars to a $60,000 initiation fee plus an annual fee of about $20,000, which is how much it costs to join the Core Club.
  • Bilderberg Group: A tiny, annual, invite-only conference in the Netherlands with extremely influential guests involved in global government, politics, finance, industry and media. The stated mission is to promote better cultural understanding between the U.S. and Western Europe. Top national leaders ponder the problems facing the West (and have the power to back up any decisions they make).
  • Trilateral Commission: A think tank founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller to foster greater cooperation between the U.S., Europe and Japan. Bylaws exclude people in public office, but it nonetheless draws its members from political, business and academic realms. Some argue that this group has a big political influence, and it’s the target of many conspiracy theories.
  • World Economic Forum at Davos: An elite meeting of about 2,500 top global personalities, from politicians to business leaders and intellectuals, to discuss the world’s most pressing issues. Attendees have included everyone from Angela Merkel to the Clinton family, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and many more.

Although a golf club isn't exactly a secret society or international commission to solve the problems of the Western world, there are many seats of power in this country--and the wider world--that may not be apparent from the outset, and many important decisions about hiring, business news, the economy and politics happen in places outside of the boardroom.

In addition to Augusta National, other elite golf clubs that formerly refused blacks and women (one of the most notorious examples is Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club in Alabama) have since eased up on those exclusionary policies. All the same, what continues to unite these golf clubs, country clubs, social clubs, annual meetings of the mind and cabal camping clubs is the presence of wealth and power. And, by all accounts, that common link isn't about to dissipate anytime soon.


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