Augusta seeks to turn past pages

Elder's honorary role bolsters momentum, new Georgia law complicates matters

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

Augusta seeks to turn past pages
Tiger Woods showed resilience winning for the 5th time,
but as much as golf has progressed — more is needed
(Matt Slocum/AP)

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

One of the hardest things to successfully accomplish is completely flip an entrenched storyline — establishing a new course of action achieving a meaningful new direction.

The most immediate questions come to mind. Is the effort genuine? Will such actions be sustained? Are such initiatives primarily for public relations purposes? Will other noteworthy actions be brought forward going beyond what’s been achieved to date? Is the new resoluteness firmly rooted and can it sustain itself even when impacted by outside forces?

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia is the annual site for the storied Masters tournament — one of golf’s four major championships. Since 1934 the event has been played and over the years its stature has grown to where golfers globally are well aware of the aura it provides the winner. The wearing of the green jacket bears testament to a golfer’s skills and solidifies a permanent placement among the greatest golfers who have ever teed up a golf ball.

In recent years Augusta National has sought to put into its rear-view mirror a range of critical issues that have dogged the club for many years.

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

Located in the deep south, Augusta National did not invite a Black golfer to compete in the event until 1975 when American Lee Elder became the first to play.  A period of 41 years passed until that specific moment while other Black prominent golfers such as Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller and Charlie Sifford were simply ignored during the heydays of their respective professional golf careers. In a reference point to illustrate how far behind was the club, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947.

While other major professional sports in America had successfully integrated it was Augusta National that remained steadfast in not inviting a Black golfer until one had earned an invitation.

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

When legendary golfers Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player resume their customary roles as honorary starters for this year’s Masters they will be joined at the 1st tee by 86-year-old Elder. Masters Chairman Fred Ridley made the announcement prior to the start of last year’s tournament that took place in November because of the impact of the global pandemic.

The club’s effort in inviting Elder was also coupled with an action in funding two scholarships in Elder’s name to be awarded annually to both a man and a woman for the golf teams at Paine College, a historically Black college located in Augusta. Currently, no women’s golf team exists at the school but one will soon be created with Augusta National providing 100 percent of the funding.

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

Although Elder did play in several Masters following his historic start in 1975 — it is equally clear no Black members were invited to join until 1990. The catalyst for that happened when controversial comments were made by founder and developer Hall Thompson relating to the lack of Black members at his home course Shoal Creek in the leading up to the staging of the 1990 PGA Championship there. 

The resulting negative uproar prompted major golf organizations to mandate that their marquee events would no longer be held at facilities with discriminatory policies. Augusta National sensing the overall mood — extended an invitation to Ron Townsend — the club’s first Black member.

The issue of Augusta National club membership circled back again – 22 years later in 2012, but this time on the gender aisle. Martha Burk, an activist, raised the gender issue in 2002 highlighting how prominent corporations were providing monies as sponsors of The Masters even though the club had no female members. Protests were planned and carried out but had no immediate impact. 

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

CBS, the only television network that has covered the Masters never raised the issue on its telecast in 2003. Having a one-year contract for the much-watched event has clearly placed the network in a position of submission to event promotion — rather than journalistic integrity When faced with questions from assembled media — then Chairman William W. “Hootie” Johnson said defiantly that the club’s action would not be prompted to “come at the point of a bayonet.” Women were eventually admitted as members — a decade later in 2012. 

The ascension of Fred Ridley as Chairman of Augusta National in 2017 ushered in a far different style. Ridley’s golf pedigree was beyond that of any past Chairman and matched only by the club’s founder — the renowned Bobby Jones. Ridley won the 1976 US Amateur — he is also the last golfer to eschew turning professional following a win in that event. Ridley would later play on the USA Walker Cup team, Captain the team in later years, serve as President of the United States Golf Association and played a major role in securing golf back into the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Prior to Ridley’s ascension as club chairman, Augusta National in recent years has taken a much more prominent role outside its custodial role of the Masters. Among those initiatives were the creation of the Drive, Chip and Putt event in 2013 in which young boys and girls earned the opportunity to come to Augusta National and demonstrate their golfing prowess. In 2012, the club lent its efforts in pushing ahead with the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and three years later did similarly with the Latin American Amateur Championship. Under Ridley’s stewardship, prior to the 2018 Masters, came the announcement that starting in 2019 the Augusta National Women’s Amateur would be played in the week prior to the actual Masters.

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

Each of these specific actions has been a clear proactive move in order to demonstrate a new willingness for the Augusta National Golf Club to build bridges in a range of areas that previously were never carried out.

Even with these efforts the Georgia voting rights bill — SB 202 — which passed the Georgia legislature and was quickly signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp has only reignited wounds showcasing the Peach State. Signaling for many a fundamental pullback is being asserted — reining in long fought voting rights specifically for Black Americans.

When the bill was signed into law, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) called on the Masters tournament to be moved from Augusta and held elsewhere. The bill, drew intense criticism – including from President Joe Biden who said the law is “un-American” and “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

NBJC executive director David Johns said in a statement to Golfweek. “This is an unacceptable attack on our democracy and companies that operate in Georgia must speak out against this restrictive law. The PGA Tour and Masters Tournament have both made commitments to help diversify golf and address racial inequities in this country — and we expect them to not only speak out against Georgia’s new racist voter suppression law – but also take action.” 

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

What bears noting is that the PGA Tour does not own or operate any of the four major championships — including the Masters. Yet, the PGA Tour does award critical points for those having high finishes in the event for its season ending Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs. 

Given the timing of the announcement the likelihood of the Masters actually being played at another course for the first time in the events history is truly unlikely.

Johns went further in stating, “Professional golf should not reward Georgia’s attacks on democracy and voting rights with the millions of dollars in revenue that the tournament generates and the prestige it brings to the state,” he said via Golfweek. “We all must act to protect our democracy and the right to vote.”

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To date, no players have said they will boycott the event. Such a stance is not unusual since a number of top players have played in other countries, namely Saudi Arabia and China respectively, where women’s rights are not treated in a comparable manner to other Western countries.

Augusta National Golf Club has not commented, thus far, but the PGA Tour issued a statement this past Saturday outlining the organization would not remove the Tour Championship from Georgia, citing its financial commitment to charity and the local community. It added, “Our intention to stage an event in a particular market should not be construed as indifference to the current conversation around voting rights” The PGA Tour also stages The RSM Classic at St. Simons Island, GA, in the Fall period and that event would also not be moved elsewhere.

During the lead-up to the start of the Masters, Ridley did schedule a press briefing and undoubtedly there will be questions posed from the assembled media regarding the club’s reaction to the new law. Major League Baseball announcemed that the playing of this year’s All-Star game in Atlanta will be moved. Leading corporations based in Georgia — notably Coca Cola and Delta — have signaled through their respective CEOs a denouncement of what the new law seeks to do.

Augusta seeks to turn past pages

This year’s Masters was supposed to be a continuation of Augusta National’s desire to expand its voice in a range of areas by demonstrating a meaningful course correction — no pun intended. Now outside events have clearly shaped the process that was put into motion.

Ridley’s leadership has made major strides since his ascension to the Chairman’s role, but the shadow of State and National politics will clearly impinge itself on a Masters event that has long sought to move beyond its checkered past. It is through Ridley’s leadership the club has sought to provide a major voice in expanding a golf footprint to a range of people and countries.

What looked like a clear roadmap for Augusta National has now become littered with significant traffic issues requiring a deft touch to avoid a more serious setback. Momentum, whether on a golf course or in broader political issues, can be ever changing and fleeting. Ridley’s stance and the words he chooses will certainly be placed under a microscope by a range of groups.

The Masters has weathered much and now faces a climate that will demonstrate whether the commitment to the changing of the past storyline is forever removed. The new Georgia voting law just made life that much more complicated for Augusta National Golf Club and its Chairman Fred Ridley. As Shakespeare said so eloquently — “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

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