A solution to the “men only” rule at Augusta National
(Written during the Martha Burk Controversy in 2002)
If Bob Jones were alive today, he would know the right thing to do to end all the controversy about inviting women to become members of the Augusta National Golf Club. Mr. Jones, who founded the club in 1931 shortly after winning the Grand Slam of Golf in 1930, might have come up with something like this…
What do Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods all have in common? Answer: None of them has ever won a single Olympic Medal…but the best female golfer who ever lived, Babe Didrikson, won three of them (two golds and one silver in 1932). And I think her story may help to bring a happy ending to the ongoing controversy that we have been hearing so much about.
While I do not particularly like the antagonistic methods employed by Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, I sincerely believe that the time has come for Augusta National to invite the first woman to join the club. The reason for my stance is very simple: doing so would better enable the club and the Masters Golf Tournament to benefit the game of golf…And, according to club co-founder Clifford Roberts, that is what the Masters is all about. As I write this article on Christmas afternoon, I just completed reading The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club by Mr. Roberts. On the very last page, he stated the objective of their annual tournament thusly,
“The Masters is operated for the single purpose of benefiting the game itself.”
So, what does Babe Didrikson have to do with all of this? Her life story may help the club’s membership understand how they might be able to do a better job of benefiting the game itself. As co-founder of the ladies sportswear company that bore her name, I had the privilege of learning a great deal about the incomparable Babe a few years ago. Some of the high points…Babe excelled in every sport she ever attempted: softball, tennis, billiards, high jump, hurdles, javelin throw, bowling, basketball, swimming, diving and, of course, golf.
She was named the “Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year” an unprecedented six times and once won seventeen golf tournaments in a row (Byron Nelson only won eleven straight). Sportswriter Grantland Rice (a key member of the original five-man organization committee for Augusta National) once said of her, “Babe is without any question the athletic phenomenon of all time, man or woman.” In 1950, an Associated Press poll named Babe as the woman athlete of the first half of the century.
Although she was superb in many sports, it was as a golfer that Babe enjoyed her greatest success. In 1947, she became the first American to win the British Ladies Championship. She turned pro in 1948 and eventually won 33 tournaments, including ten majors, three of them U.S. Opens. Her superb driving ability off the tee prompted Byron Nelson (third person to win the Masters) to say that he knew of only eight men who could outdrive her…legend has it that her longest single drive was 408 yards.
Babe Didrikson had many things in common with Bob Jones. They played during the same era and both of them dominated the game of golf during their prime. Few would argue that anyone has done more for the game than Bob Jones and the Babe. Sadly, they both suffered premature deaths…each of them weighing only about sixty pounds at the end of their very painful battles for their lives…Bob was crippled at age 46 and Babe was dead of cancer at age 45.
So, why do I think Bob Jones would do the right thing to end the controversy? Because of his reputation of always doing the right thing throughout his life. Of course, if he were still alive, there would probably have been no controversy in the first place.
Clifford Roberts writes in his book…the popularity of Bob Jones was probably the most incredible thing that ever occurred in American sports. His skill as a golfing competitor directed attention his way, but it was his innate modesty, plus his many great qualities of mind and heart, that developed widespread interest and adulation from people in all walks of life. Bob always seemed to do and say the things that were in good taste and pleasing to all, quite naturally and without any apparent effort. Paul Gallico, author of Farewell to Sport writes about Jones…in all my years of contact with the famous ones of sport, I have found only one that would stand up in every way as a gentleman as well as a celebrity.
Much has changed in this world since Bob Jones died in 1971, but I sincerely believe that if he were alive today, that he would know the right thing to do about the controversy surrounding his beloved golf club. Perhaps he would first tell them the Babe Didrikson story and then propose to the membership that they posthumously invite her to join the club, thereby breaking the so-called barrier against women members.
After all, in 1966 Bob Jones was unanimously elected as the President in Perpetuity of Augusta National…a position he still holds to this day, thirty-one years after his death. Maybe the time has come to select the first woman member in a similar fashion. If Bob Jones himself were here to make such a proposal, the membership would probably vote unanimously to approve…maybe in time for Bob’s 101st birthday…just a few weeks before the 2003 Masters.
—-J. Morris Hicks (December 25, 2002)
April, 2012, Update. After writing that article in 2002, I mailed copies to the legendary Atlanta sportswriter, Furman Bisher and to the then Chairman of Augusta National, Hootie Johnson. True to their Southern gentlemen heritage, I received a written response back from both.
Sadly, Mr. Bisher passed away last month, coincidentally while I was in Atlanta visiting my daughter. He had covered the Masters for 62 years—more than any other person. (See NY Times article)
This week, on Wednesday, as the 76th Masters was about to get underway, he received a very moving tribute from Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne at the opening press conference. As for me, I will never forget the note that I received from Mr. Bisher, a note that helped inspire me as a writer. He simply said, “Thanks for sending, it was a very good read.”
FYI; Augusta National admitted its first African American member in 1990—almost sixty years after the club was founded. Hopefully, we’ll see the first female member before their 100th anniversary in just nineteen years.