Masters of Discrimination: Augusta National Golf Club, Freedom of Association, and Gender Equality in Golf

Author:Joseph 1. Tofilon
Position::University ofIowa College of Law

I. Introduction II.Background.A. Brief HistoryoftheAugustaNational Golf Club .B. Membership Selection Process at Augusta National .C. The Masters GolfTournament at Augusta National. D. Background ofthe Issue ofGender Discrimination by Augusta National.E. Augusta National 's Argument in Defense ofits Gender Discrimination. III. Augusta National And The Freedom Of Intimate Association. A. The... (see full summary)


I. Introduction

Every April, Augusta National Golf Club hosts the year's first major golf tournament. At the end of the contest, caHed the Masters, the Club awards the winner a green jacket, perhaps one of the most revered symbols in all of sports.1 Reportedly, the night after Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters, his father "looked in on his son and found him curled up in bed, asleep with a smile on his face, his arms wrapped around hIS green jacket."2 Winning at Augusta National Golf Club has such an effect.

The Club is perhaps the most venerated place in aH of golf. Founded in the early 1930s, it has long been a haven for the wealthiest Americans to retreat from the public eye and enjoy themselves.3 Its members are among the wealthiest and most powerful men in American industrial, legal, business, and politicallife.4 The only blemish on the history of Augusta National has been its persistent practice of discrimination. Only in 1990 did the Club invite its first African-American member to join,5 and it has yet to accept a female into its membership. While Augusta National succumbed to public pressure and invited an African-American to join, it vehemently insists it cannot be forced to admit a female member.6

The Club's position is very unfortunate for those who strive for gender equality in America. While the American golf course has traditionally been a place where legal and business professionals network with one another and bond, it has also consistently been the site of gender discrimination.7 As a result, women are ofien placed at a disadvantage when they compete for promotions with men who have the opportunity to play golf with their boss.8 If Augusta National would open its doors to women, it is unquestionable that such an event would represent a giant step forward in the effort to eradicate misogyny from the game of golf and thereby eqmilize the abilities of men and women to use the game as a tool to advance theircareers.9

Augusta National believes that it is completely irnmune to external legal pressure to admit' a female member. 10 This assumption, however, may be debatable given a review of the Supreme Court's treatment of the First Amendment's freedom of association. This Note argues that the Club is not protected by the doctrine of expressive association and arguably does not come within the scope of those types of private clubs that the Supreme Court has deemed to be protected by the doctrine of intimate association. Unfortunately, the odds are against change at Augusta National regardless of the degree to which it is protected from state interference. This is largely due to the economic clout of the Club in Géorgia.11 There may be, however, alternative ways to end the gender discrimination at Augusta National.

The first section of this Note provides background information that is essential to understanding the discussion of the legal issues that follow. This section provides' a brief history of Augusta National, a description of its membership selection process and the annual Masters Tournament, and, a discussion ofthe current controversy that now embattles the Club. The Note will then proceed by describing, in detail, how the Supreme Court has defined the doctrine of freedom of association and how that doctrine should be applied to the case of Augusta National. Next, the Note examines the potential impact'that forcing the Club to accept its first female member would have on the largely misogynistic world of golf. Lastly, the likelihood that Augusta National will change in the near future is investigated.


A. Brief HistoryoftheAugustaNational Golf Club .

To understand the legal issues surrounding golfs most prívate club, one must first understand Augusta National Golf Club, its history, and its principIes. Clifford Roberts, a lawyer and entrepreneur, and Robert Jones, a legendary golf amateur, founded Augusta National in the earIy 1930s to serve as a haven of prívacy that the country's social elite could utilize12 when they wished to retreat from the hardships of the Great Depression. Accordingly, the course did not have humble beginnings. Its construction was financed by many of the wealthiest men in America13 and was designed by a worId-renowned course architect.14OftheClub'seightyinauguralmembers, sixtywereeitherlawyersor investment bankers from New York City.15 The weekend the Club officially opened, these elite men traveled on Pullman cars from Grand Central Station in New York City to Augusta, Georgia drinking and playing cards the entire way.16

The Club's foremost purpose was to provide a place of privacy where the wealthy members could enjoy themselves17 Robert Jones wrote that his goal for the course "was to develop a golf course and a retreat of such stature, and of such excellence, that men of some means and devoted to the game of golf might find the club worthwhile as an extra luxury...."18 This goal was eventually realized. The Club's membership rolls now purportedly include, among many others, executives of Citigroup,. IBM, Coors .Brewing Company, American Express, Motorola, lP. Morgan Chase, General Electric, Coming, and Coca­Cola.19 The federal government is also well represented.20 Included in the membership are former secretaries ofstate, treasury, and defense.21 According to USA Today, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are also members.22 In sum, the Club is now a secluded playground for rich, primarily white, men.23

While this concentration ofwealth is notitselfabarrierto women who seek membership in the Club, the internal structure of Augusta National is. The inaugural members voted at their first meeting to have the Club governed by only a president and chairman.24 The presidency of the Club did not last long, however.25 When Bobby Jones, the first president, died, the Club declared him "president into perpetuity"26 and thereafter the Club was governed solely by a chairman.

The chairman of Augusta National alone controls every aspect of the Club's functions.27 During his long tenure, the original chairman, Clifford Roberts, determined everything from the course's layout to the menu in Augusta National's clubhouse.28 The current chairman, William "Hootie" Johnson, carries on this tradition of authoritativeness.29 When USA Today called each member of Augusta National and asked for cornment on the recent woman­membership scandal, "[o]f the ones reached, almost every one toed the Club line, which is this: Club chairman William "Hootie" Johnson speaks for the club (SiC)."30

This internal structure creates perhaps the largest barrier to women who seek membership. As a result of the concentration of decision-making power in one man, attempts by women's groups to apply pressure to the pocketbooks of the members will likely bear little fruit. The Club's internal organization effectively allows its members to take a passive and submissive role vis-a-vis the Club's policymaking, and thereby insulates members from criticismo If one man makes all decisions, a member who is faced with criticism of the Club's policies can accurately claim he is powerless to do anything to alter them. Until the membership of Augusta National seeks to change the internal structure ofthe Club, the law will perhaps offer the only option to stop the discrimination.

B. Membership Selection Process at Augusta National .

The nature of the membership selection process is. another obstacle to women seeking membership. "Augusta National Golf Club is a golfing version of Yale's Skull and Bones: a secret society of the well-heeled that answers to one. You don't apply for membership. You get called-if you have the right combination of money, infiuence and friends.,,31 The only manner of gaining membership is to be nominated by a current member.32 Even ifone achieves the larter, however, his invitation may be delayed due to the Club's unofficial policy of maintaining its membership numbers at approximately 300.33 Generally, this means that one current member must resign or die before a new member may join.34 Lastly, the chairman of the Club must personally approve each candidate for membership before an invitation is dispatched.35

C. The Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National.

Each year, Augusta National plays host to the Masters Golf Toumament,36 To many, the course on which the Masters is played is the most sacred place in the game of golf.37 Writer David Owen begins his book on the Masters, "[t]he modem golf season never ends, but it does begin. When the first contestant tees off at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday moming during Masters week, golfers all over the world reset their intemal clocks. The first page in a golfer's calendar is April."38 The Masters Toumament is the most prestigious in golf.39 Golfing deity Gary Player once said that "[t]he Masters is the only toumament I ever knew where you choke when you drive through the front gate.40

The Masters Toumament is the most popular, most profitable, and most watched toumament of the golfing year, and it occurs every spring at Augusta National Golf Club.41 Tickets are all but impossible to acquire42 and each costs $175.43 Once, two dozen CBS Television executives were caught wearing the Masters badges oftwo dozen dead people.'44

There is also a great deal ofmoney involved in televising the Masters to the world. CBS transmits the.· Masters to approximately 40 million viewers annuallt45 and reportedly pays Augusta National $7 million to do SO.46 Traditionally, the network has been more than able to receive a retum on its investment by charging an average of $205,000 for every thirty-second commercial during the toumament.47 In 2003, however, CBS and Augusta National agreed to eliminate commercials during the toumament as a means to insulate the companies that sponsor the Masters from public scrútiny. over the Club's discriminatory practices.48 In retum for forgoing advertising money, Augusta National reduced the fee it charged...

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