AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first private club I ever got shut out of was a tree house in my old neighborhood. I was 8 years old. Some kids had crawled inside and when I tried to enter, one of them smirked and said, “You can’t come in. It’s our club. Members only.”
And he shut the door.
I still remember that feeling, hanging there, embarrassed, trying to act as if I really didn’t care, all the time burning to be a part of that group.
Later I would form a tree house club of my own — and shut out a kid who lived down the street. I savored the feeling of power as I watched him walk away, his shoulders slumped. It lasted 30 seconds. Then I began to feel guilty.
I have hated clubs ever since. Never joined them. Never admired them. Thought fraternities were stupid. Found country clubs a disturbing part of our society. Whenever possible, I avoided even dealing with the private club concept.
I also didn’t cover much golf.
There is no avoiding the issue here. Exclusivity is what Augusta National is all about. This is a place where becoming a member is such a hushed and mysterious process, it is considered sacrilege to even mention it. “One sure way to never become a member,” an insider told me, his voice a whisper, “is to let on that you want to be one.”
There are only about 300 members of this golf club, most of whom are wearing their green blazers this week. You can only wear those blazers inside the club, never outside; that is the rule. If the chairman, Hord Hardin, learns that you were flashing your green blazer at, say, your cousin’s wedding, you can be thrown out. Of the club, not the wedding. Although, if you ask me, wearing green to a wedding is reason enough for expulsion.
Silly? I think so. But then, that’s the whole fun of a club, isn’t it? Make up rules? Keep others out? Of course, it wasn’t much fun for Shoal Creek, site of last year’s PGA Championship, when its racial exclusivity drew public outrage. Hosting a major golf championship? And no black members? Advertisers balked. Protests were threatened. To avoid complete disaster, Shoal Creek quickly enrolled one black member, a businessman named Louis Willie. Life went back to normal.
Meanwhile, the folks here at Augusta began to twitch. They, too, had no blacks in their membership. At the Masters was just months away. Moving quickly, before anyone made a stink, they extended membership to Ron Townsend, a black TV executive from Washington, D.C. And by the time the nation turned its head this way, here were the green blazers, smiling, with their one black member.
“See,” they seemed to say, proudly, “no discrimination in our club.”
Discrimination is what clubs are all about.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There was some wonderful golf played here Friday. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, two former champions, were paired together for a magnificent afternoon, in which Nicklaus, two shots in the water at the infamous 12th hole, quadruple-bogeyed, yet rebounded with four straight birdies, including a long, boomerang putt on the 16th. And Watson, who hasn’t won a major in eight years, he, too, found the old magic, also sank a long birdie putt on 16, and suddenly found himself leading the Masters. As they walked up the 18th fairway Nicklaus motioned for Watson to walk ahead, because he was in first place. But Watson said, “Nah, let’s go together.” And they did, side by side, Jack and Tom, as hundreds of fans roared their approval.
This will go down as a Masters Moment, something special that took place in Augusta. Golfers love such classy history. Unfortunately they like to separate history from morality.
Most pro golf tournaments are played at private clubs. Many of these clubs have either discriminatory policies or rules that might as well be racist. Blacks, Jews and Hispanics are often not welcome. Recently, such clubs have tried to create loopholes by saying, “We don’t discriminate. A new member must only be nominated by an existing member and then voted in.”
Sure. But if your existing members joined the club to avoid “undesirables” in the first place, how quickly will they nominate one for membership?
Still, nothing quite compares with Augusta. Here is a place where Hardin, the 79-year-old chairman — who has his own special chair in the dining room and gets to play through any group on the golf course — actually tries to control what is discussed on the premises. “Business-related conversations are not welcome,” Hardin told Golf Digest recently. “That’s in writing. The last thing I want to hear is that some merger was arranged at Augusta National. If I see a member open a briefcase in the clubhouse, he’s outta here.”
Obviously, free speech never struck Hardin as very important. But then, a chairman who avoided desegregation until last year can’t be expected to keep up with the Constitution, can he? I find it interesting that Hardin wails against “business talk” in his club, and yet on the course Friday, I heard two members exchange the following joke:
“What’s the difference between karate and judo?”
“I give up.”
“Karate is a martial art. Judo is what bagels are made out of. Get it? Jew dough?”
“Ha-ha. That’s a good one.”
Hey, Hord. You got a rule for that?
Obviously not. Hardin has already said “there is no timetable” for adding another minority member, now that one black is in and the heat is off. For Hord, I suppose, one is enough.
So there will be wonderful moments here, such as Nicklaus and Watson walking up that fairway. And come Sunday, some golfer will wear the green jacket, and his picture will be flashed across the world. But the very next day, when the pros disappear, Augusta National goes back to being exactly what it has been all along, and the green jackets will have nothing to do with class. Someone asked Hardin who decides whether a new member gets in.
“I do,” he said.
In that way, Hord is a lot like those kids I remember from the tree house. But then clubs have pretty much always been for children, haven’t they?