Masters 'not doing anything illegal'

Updated: May 10, 2012, 8:05 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Although the PGA Tour does not allow courses that host its tournaments to discriminate in its membership policy, commissioner Tim Finchem on Wednesday said that it doesn't hold Augusta National to the same standard due to the lofty status of the Masters.

The year's first major championship is co-sponsored by the PGA Tour, which means that a victory in the tournament and money earned count toward the tour's records.

"The position of the PGA Tour hasn't changed,'' Finchem said during a news conference prior to the Players Championship at the TPC Sawgrass that covered a variety of topics. "We have a policy that says when we go out and do a co-sanctioned event, we are going to play it at a club that is open to women members, open to minority members, etc. And we follow that policy carefully.

"In the case of the Masters, we have concluded a number of times ... we are not going to give up the Masters as a tournament on our tour. It's too important. So at the end of the day, the membership of that club has to determine their membership. And they are not doing anything illegal.''

In the case of the Masters, we have concluded a number of times. . . we are not going to give up the Masters as a tournament on our tour. It's too important. So at the end of the day, the membership of that club has to determine their membership. And they are not doing anything illegal.

-- PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem

The home to the Masters has long maintained a policy of not having women members, despite pressure in recent years, including at last month's event won by Bubba Watson. When Bloomberg News reported in March that the new IBM CEO is a woman, Virginia Rometty -- and that the club traditionally invites the IBM CEO to be a member -- it set off a new round of questions, because it seemingly put the club in conflict with its own policy.

Masters chairman Billy Payne said during the tournament this year that he would not discuss the club's membership issues, which are private.

But last week billionaire investor Warren Buffett became the first known Augusta National member to speak out.

"I'm not telling the group at Augusta what to do, but if I were running the club, I'd have plenty of women," Buffett, 81, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television after his company's annual meeting Saturday in Omaha, Neb.

The PGA Tour's policy dates to 1990 when the founder of Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., Hall Thompson, made controversial comments about why his club had no minority members.

Shoal Creek was the site of that year's PGA Championship, and the fallout caused many of the major golf associations to adopt policies that stated they would not take their tournaments to clubs that discriminated, including the United States Golf Association, PGA of America and PGA Tour.

In the case of the tour, that meant some scrambling had to take place. Among the high-profile venues that had discriminatory policies were Cypress Point -- part of the rotation at the AT&T National Pro-Am -- and Butler National near Chicago, which hosted the Western Open.

Both of those clubs dropped out, meaning the Pebble Beach tournament replaced Cypress Point with Poppy Hills (and later Monterrey Peninsula Golf Club), while the Western Open (now BMW Championship) moved to Cog Hill.

Augusta National quickly moved to invite its first African-American member, and Ronald Townsend -- who is still a member of the club -- joined in 1991. But the club has remained firm in its stance against inviting women (who are allowed as guests) to become members.

"We just elect to continue to recognize them as an official money event on the PGA Tour because we think it's that important to golf, so we don't get to determine whether their policies are right or right, because we don't have to,'' said 65-year-old Finchem, who has been PGA Tour commissioner since 1994 and whose contract has been extended through 2016. "We made the conclusion that regardless of those policies, we are going to continue to play and recognize them as part of the PGA Tour.

"I know some people don't like that position, and I appreciate that and understand their reasoning, but that's the decision we've made.''

The PGA Tour has a different relationship with the Masters and the other major championships than it does with the events on its schedule that it sanctions. The tour is involved in securing sponsors and negotiating television rights fees -- which it does not do with the major championships.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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