The disturbing truth about Augusta National, the Iron Curtain of golf

Sharon Wong

Augusta National stands in as a sort of Iron Curtain for golf, impossible to penetrate and full of its own hidden machinations.

President Reagan, one of its longtime patrons, was known to have ordered the Grenada invasion and escaped an assassination threat from within its hallowed grounds. The important goings-on at the club are as good an excuse as any to jealously guard its secrets.

Source: Ronald Reagan Archives

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The club and the Masters are noticeably absent from the vast compendium of Southern literature. To this day, any club member who speaks of what goes on within risks expulsion and technology is banned on the premises.

However, it is Augusta’s worst-kept secret that it has a lot more to hide than merely the business of its illustrious members. Its long, shameful history of elitist bigotry is only just starting to be challenged in this day and age and its gatekeepers are digging in their heels to ensure that things are kept exactly as they always were.

Disturbing Beginnings

Founder of Augusta, Bobby Jones, may not need any introduction. A beloved amateur golfer who went on to win 13 majors, the dignified, good-looking Jones personified genteel Southern masculine charm. With such an attractive face at the helm of its development, it’s no wonder Augusta quickly gained renown and respect among elite gentleman golfers.

Source: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

What most of these enthusiasts either supported or were willfully blind to was the fact that Jones forced a team of African-American laborers to build the course in 76 days at the height of the Great Depression. He worked them for 10 hours a day and six days a week, having foremen preside over them like the slavers of yore.

It got even worse for many of the staff when the club was actually built. Aside from the golf, blooming azaleas and civilized conversation, the members got to partake in such delights as getting black men to engage in vicious combat for their entertainment. Among these unfortunate fighters was singer James Brown. And we thought Django Unchained was just a movie.

Did things get better?

Ha, we wish. Not until 1975 were golfers of color allowed to compete in the Masters. The criteria for being invited to compete was a trophy at a PGA event or placement among the top 25 money winners.

However, Augusta National decided to break its own rules by refusing to extend an invitation to Charlie Sifford, a talented African-American golfer who won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open and got into the top 20 in the 60’s. Certainly keeping in line with chairman Clifford Roberts’ sentiments.

“As long as I live, there will be nothing at the Masters besides black caddies and white players.”

Disgustingly, Roberts got exactly what he wanted. Not until 1983, 6 years after his death, did Augusta permit caddies who were anything other than black.

Of course, it took almost a decade till the first African-American was recognized as a member in 1990. Better late than never, right???

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Women weren’t people either

Source: David Cannon/Getty Images

If it’s any consolation, white women didn’t fare much better either. The wives and mothers of many a privileged player were prohibited from entering the grounds, as the club also had a strict men-only policy. And they still weren’t up until four years ago in 2012, when the club deigned to permit Condi Rice and Darla Moore to darken its manicured lawns. It only took 10 years of activism from women’s groups and close to $80 million in legal settlements.

Change is the devil

To most of us, common decency would be inclusiveness. We’re aghast that golf is perceived as off limits to the vast majority of the population when it’s a social, intriguing game that anyone should try their hand at at least once. But as much as golf’s exclusivity distresses us, the folks at Augusta are very eager to keep everyone outside of the inner circle at arm’s length.

For the old boy’s club, golf is not merely a sport, but a certain way of life. It’s the means by which the moneyed movers and shakers of society strengthen their bonds, make deals and keep the imperfections of the outside world at bay. And to this day, they continue to defend their right to not to fix things if they ain’t broke. As “Hootie” Johnson, former chairman of Augusta, said:

“Our membership is single gender just as many other organizations and clubs all across America. These would include junior leagues, sororities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and countless others. And we all have a moral and legal right to organize our clubs the way we wish.”

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Demanding the liberty to deny others of liberty is troubling, at best. Say what you want about the Boy Scouts and sororities, there is at least an equivalent for other genders. There is nothing approaching an Augusta National for women and we believe that the attitude Johnson gives voice to is a very large reason for that.

Ever since Augusta’s genesis, the golf world has looked up to this paragon of tradition and elitism. No golfer in his right mind would turn down an invitation to the Masters and a green jacket, the twin symbols of the best kind of validation he could dream of. News channels continue to play into the image of prestige by showering the tournament with adulation. CBS dubs the Masters “A tradition unlike any other,” while Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner praises it without a hint of irony as “A gift for us all to enjoy.”

Source: AP Photo

It’s not difficult for even the casual observer to note the tremendous sway Augusta continues to hold over the golf world. And naturally, you adopt the values of those you allow to influence you. If the grand dame of our favorite game is so reluctant to budge on changing its stance on equality, it’s no wonder the game of golf itself continues to be associated with rabid conservatism and discrimination across racial and economic lines. Does any organization have the moral and legal obligation to protect that? We didn’t think so.

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