Is There an Augusta National in Your Life?

Is There an Augusta National in Your Life? August 21, 2012

The Augusta National Golf Club was in the news yesterday when they admitted their first female members: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore. The playgrounds of the 1% of the 1% may seem irrelevant to ordinary folks, but there’s a lesson in this for all of us – and it’s probably not what you’re thinking right now.

For the benefit of those who haven’t followed this issue, here are the basic facts. Augusta National is one of, if not the most famous and most exclusive golf club in the world. It is the host of The Masters, one of professional golf’s four major tournaments. It has about 300 members, who are among the richest and most powerful people in the country.

photo from Wikimedia Commons

Augusta National is a beautiful and historic golf course, but its mystique comes from its exclusivity. It doesn’t matter how rich you are – you can’t get in unless the members approve you, and there are only a few openings each year.

The club opened in 1933, did not admit an African American until 1990, and did not admit a woman until yesterday. When asked about its membership policies, the club simply said that it was a private club and its policies were private. When faced with public protests over its exclusion of women (in fact if not by rule) chairman Billy Payne said they would admit women on their own timetable “and not at the point of a bayonet.”

As a private club, Augusta National certainly has the right to set its own standards for membership and to admit who they want. As a prominent institution in the public eye, it also has an obligation to conduct itself in an ethical manner and excluding women is simply not ethical. It’s good to see Augusta National finally doing the right thing.

Why has this taken so long? Bigotry is the usual assumption and I’m sure there are some bigots in Augusta National – in a group of 300 rich powerful men there are bound to be a few. And the social inertia of overcoming a heritage of privilege is great. But to chalk this all up to bigotry is to oversimplify a complex situation and to miss the opportunity to learn from it.

People tend to tell the truth far more often than we assume and I take Billy Payne’s statements – and the passion behind those statements – at face value. The members of Augusta National are very powerful men who aren’t used to being told what to do. When pushed to do the right thing they responded with all the maturity of a five-year-old screaming “you’re not the boss of me!” Maintaining their great pride and their illusion of complete autonomy was more important to them than beginning to reflect the ethic of gender equality in their membership.

Understand, their pride and their devotion to doing things their way is one of the reasons why they’re rich and powerful in the first place. Their failing was in not recognizing the limits of their own opinions, and in letting a visceral reaction override their commitment to doing the right thing.

There are plenty of beautiful, historic, prestigious golf courses in the United States. Some of them are open to the public, including the famous Pebble Beach. You can play there. It won’t be cheap, but you can do it. The desirability of membership in Augusta National is based in its exclusivity. Members are in, most every other golfer in the country wants in, and there are only a few openings each year. That gives current members tremendous power, and power within an organization brings with it the temptation to use that power for your personal benefit.

Every member has two or three friends who’d like to join. That means there are several hundred candidates for perhaps three or four slots. Almost all won’t get in. If you’re on the membership committee (assuming Augusta National has such a committee), who do you recommend? The guy who’s been waiting for decades and whose acceptance would bring you the good will of several members? The CEO who could get you or your wife or your brother a seat on his board? The value of “doing the right thing” will be weighed against the benefits another rich white man could bring to you and to the club.

At this level of power and money, straightforward quid pro quos are rare. It’s more a system of personal favors and markers, forming connections and building influence with the powerful. Maybe that influence will be cashed in some day and maybe it will simply further inflate some already large egos. It is no surprise that one of the first female members is a well-respected former Secretary of State.

It’s easy to point out the moral shortcomings of the rich and powerful. It’s harder to apply that same level of scrutiny to our own lives. Is there an Augusta National in your life?

Are there areas of your life where you’re less than inclusive? Are there things you know aren’t right but you accept with “that’s the way they’ve always been”?

Has someone suggested a change you know you should make but your response was “you can’t tell me what to do!”? Is your pride keeping you from doing the right thing?

And conversely, are you in someone’s face when a quiet word would be more effective?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with power. But do you use the power you have to further the greater good or to increase your own prestige?

While I’m happy Augusta National has finally admitted women as members, it has no impact on my life. But the story of how this happened is a reminder for all of us to make sure we’re living the way we really want to live.

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