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Gender debate simmers on eve of Masters

The Masters

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) – The chairman of America’s most prestigious golf tournament will face the prickly issue of women’s membership again Wednesday, though he is almost certain to skirt it.

During his annual media session, Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, is sure to take questions about Ginni Rometty, the top executive at IBM and, undoubtedly, one of the corporate world’s most powerful women.

IBM’s sponsorship of the Masters tournament guarantees club membership for its officers, but Rometty is a woman, and the club does not allow women to join.

Women’s rights activist Martha Burk tried to change the controversial gender policy nine years ago when she showed up at the Augusta entrance to lead a series of protests against men-only membership.

Her efforts were in vain.

Now, she says, “the boys” at Augusta, members and sponsors alike, find themselves in a big bind.

“The ‘woman problem’ is back,” she wrote in a column for CNN on Tuesday.

Burk says there are only two choices at hand: Augusta can open its doors to women, or IBM can yank its money and force its male executives to resign from the club.

“Those are the only two options that are viable that are going to wash with the public,” Burk told CNN last week.

Augusta’s membership — which includes titans of industry and finance — has been male-only since the club’s opening in 1932.

When Burk tried to change things in 2002, Augusta’s then-chairman, Hootie Johnson, resisted, saying that gender integration would not come “at the point of a bayonet.”

In 2006, Burk was among a group of Exxon shareholders who accused the company of violating its discrimination policies by supporting the tournament.

Nonmembers can play on the course only when hosted by members.

Augusta is famously secretive about its membership, and the club declined to comment on the issue, as did IBM spokesman Chris Andrews.

“Augusta is a private club, and their personal membership is an internal matter,” he said.

IBM, however, has played a role in changing policy before. The company pulled television ads from the PGA Championship when it was played at the whites-only Shoal Creek golf club in Alabama. The club admitted its first African-American in 1990 and now claims former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a member.

Augusta also did not welcome its first black member until 1990, when Gannett television division president Ron Townsend joined the club.

As the Augusta gender controversy rages again on the eve of the 2012 Masters opening Thursday, speculation has surfaced that Payne, known to be more progressive than his predecessor, will offer Rometty a membership, but only after the tournament ends and the gender debate dies down.

“Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt,” Burk wrote. “Telling Rometty to be a good girl and wait a little longer with IBM’s collusion would be a disaster — not only for the company’s image, but for Rometty’s credibility as its leader.”

More and more people are asking Augusta to man up and get rid of what they say is a discriminatory policy from the past.

Payne finds himself in the hot seat Wednesday, but he’s not likely to make sweeping changes just before this year’s tournament.

That means that Rometty will probably not show up this year in a green jacket. The question is: Will she ever?

CNN’s James O’Toole contributed to this report.

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