Martha Burk: Augusta, IBM 'in bind'

Martha Burk, who spearheaded a failed campaign 10 years ago to get Augusta National to admit a female member, said the golf club should "step up and do the right thing" and open its doors to IBM chief executive officer Virginia Rometty.

The past four chief executives of IBM -- a longtime corporate sponsor of the Masters -- have been members of the exclusive club. Rometty this year became the latest CEO of the computer giant.

A woman has never worn a member's green jacket since Augusta National opened in 1933. And now, just seven days before the Masters, no less, the membership debate again is in full bloom.

"I think they're both in a bind," Martha Burk told The Associated Press Thursday evening.

A decade ago, Burk applied pressure on just about everyone connected with Augusta National and with the Masters, the major championship that garners the highest TV ratings. She demanded that four companies drop their television sponsorship because of discrimination. She lobbied PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to not recognize the Masters as part of the tour schedule.

But it didn't work.

Hootie Johnson, chairman of the club at the time, said Augusta might one day have a female member, but it would be on the club's timetable, and "not at the point of a bayonet." The protest fizzled in a parking lot down the street during the third round of the 2003 tournament.

"We did raise the issue," Burk said on CNN. "If we had not done that, this would not be on the table now."

Now it's back, and this time it has a face -- Rometty, a 31-year veteran of IBM who has been ranked among the "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" by Fortune magazine the past seven years. Rometty was No. 7 last year.

What's the next step?

Augusta National has declined to comment, keeping with its policy of not discussing membership issues. IBM has not commented publicly, and did not return a phone call from the AP Thursday night.

"IBM is in a bigger bind than the club," Burk said. "The club trashed their image years ago. IBM is a corporation. They ought to care about the brand, and they ought to care about what people think. And if they're not careful, they might undermine their new CEO."

Augusta has a new chairman in Billy Payne, who ran the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. When he replaced Johnson as chairman of the club and of the Masters tournament in 2006, he said there was "no specific timetable" for admitting women.

The question was raised at the 2007 and 2010 Masters. Both times, Payne said membership issues were private.

"What IBM needs to do is draw a line in the sand -- 'We're either going to pull our sponsorship and membership and any ancillary activities we support with the tournament, or the club is going to have to honor our CEO the way they have in the past," Burk said. "There's no papering over it. They just need to step up and do the right thing.

"They need to not pull that argument that they support the tournament and not the club. That does not fool anybody, and they could undermine their new CEO."

Rometty succeeds Sam Palmissano at IBM, which runs the Masters' website from the bottom floor of the media center. According to a list published by USA Today in 2002, the previous three CEOs also were members -- Louis Gertsner, John Akers and John Open.

As the corporate sponsors became the target, Johnson wound up doing away with TV sponsorship for two years at the Masters to keep the corporate partners -- IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup -- out of the fray. Only IBM returned as a TV sponsor for the 2005 Masters. The others were SBC Communications and ExxonMobil.

Burk said she would not be surprised if IBM pressured Rometty to say she doesn't want to be a member.

"Really, I don't think it's her responsibility," Burk said. "It's the board of directors. They need to take action here. They don't need to put that on her. They need to say, 'This is wrong. We thought the club was on the verge of making changes several years ago, and we regretfully end our sponsorship to maintain her credibility and the company brand.' "

Augusta National does not ban women. They can play the golf course, but no woman has worn an Augusta green jacket, a status symbol in business and golf. Rometty is said to play golf sparingly. Her greater passion is scuba diving.

She now becomes a central figure.

"We have a face, we have a résumé, we have a title and we have a credible reason to do it that doesn't involve Martha Burk," Burk said.

Burk said she is no longer chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. She had planned to step down until the first flap with the Masters began in summer 2002. Now, she said she runs the Corporate Accountability Project for the council, a project born from her battle with Augusta.

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.