Augusta National Golf Club: An Ethical Battle?

by Tina Valle

I used to dislike golf. No, wait, scratch that. I used to hate golf. Seeing or hearing that four-letter word would cause this uncontrollable tic that consisted of shaking my head in disapproval and looking down at the ground with a face that looked like I just swallowed an entire lemon. Why in the world would anyone create such a “sport,” if you even want to call it that? The whole game made no sense to me. So you take this tiny little ball, whack it as hard as you can, then try to find it amongst all the trees, grass, and weeds, just so you can whack it again until it goes into a hole that is 400 yards away? And people actually pay to do this? It sounded terribly frustrating and mind-numbing if you asked me. Having a CAT scan sounded more exciting than this. So needless to say, when I first heard about the controversy surrounding Augusta National Golf Club and their policy of not opening their membership to women, I barely blinked an eye. I thought, “Who cares? What’s the big deal? There’s no ethics involved in this case! In fact, it’s actually a blessing bestowed upon women. Thank God women don’t have to become part of a snotty club that engages in such a pointless game!” I soon began to see the ethical implications of women not allowed at Augusta when I began working as a marketing coordinator at an engineering firm.

Within the first three months of working at the firm, I began to notice how frequently that four-letter word would be tossed around the office by upper management, who notably, were all men. I would walk by their offices and see a group of males standing around, chitchatting about past golf games, bantering over terrible golf shots and “oohing” and “ahhing” over stories about games under par. It was like watching a men- only club in action.

I then began to notice how often the marketing manager would jet out the door by noon on Fridays, as giddy as a child ready to be taken to Toys ‘R Us. “Well, I’m off to my meeting,” he would say with a smirk. I soon found out that by “meeting,” he meant a round of golf with existing and potential clients. From time to time he would stop by my cubicle and ask me to come along. I’d come up with as many excuses as possible, from “I don’t know how to play” to “I’m not much of a golf person.” With each excuse that came out of my mouth, it took all the strength in the world to refrain from that nasty tic I had developed. He finally had it one day with all of the excuses I had fed him and said, “If you want to make it in the business and marketing world, you better start picking up a club and learn how to play!” I was shocked. What was he talking about? I would make it in the marketing world just fine. I had a college degree, I was gaining valuable experience, and was well on my way to building my career. What did golf have to do with business? Apparently, everything.

Golf is more than just a sport in the business world. It is a tool that can drive people’s careers. It is a means for businesspeople to network, make contacts, and even land deals. According to Savage, an international organizational development expert and founder and president of PNA Inc., a consulting company, we must “accept the reality that today the Golf Culture is the way the world of top executives generally operates” (Wiscombe, 2002). When this is taken into consideration, having members who are CEOs of America’s largest corporations makes Augusta National Golf Club a powerful place where important decisions in the business world take place. According to Martha Burk, Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, “I've learned how closely golf and the business world are intertwined. The major golf magazines frequently run features on topics such as ‘The Best Golfing CEOs in the Country’ and ‘The Etiquette of Conducting Business during a Round of Golf.’ It's clear that many important business decisions are made on the fairways and in the clubhouse, and that women aren't allowed in” (Lewis, 2003). Sports writer Selena Roberts further adds, "Augusta is the 19th hole for corporate synergy... Women of corporate America can continue to crack their craniums on the glass ceiling without the same networking privileges. In CEO land the need to impress with excess is a business tool. Augusta is a nice hammer to have when the appearance of power can make or break a deal between men” (Lewis, 2003).

Now I understand what all the ruckus is about regarding Augusta National Golf Club. By denying women membership, Augusta National is engaging in unethical behavior. Feminist ethicist Helen Lonhino defines immoral behavior as that which “causes injury to or violation of another person or people. Such injury may be physical or psychological. To cause pain to another, to lie to another, to hinder another in the exercise of his or her rights, to exploit another, degrade another, to misrepresent and slander another are instances of immoral behavior” (Johanessen, 2002, p. 223). Women are being denied the opportunity to network with the many powerful CEOs who are Augusta members, and in turn, they are being hindered to exercise their right to participate equally and be treated fairly in the business world. Burk has also stated that through the years, “I've seen and heard about a number of sexist comments from male golfers directed at women…” (Lewis, 2003). Not only do these comments degrade women, a source of unethical behavior, but the attitudes behind those kinds of comments are the same as those that lead to policies that create pay inequity and foster domestic violence, other practices that lead to the injury and exploitation of women.

From a humanistic perspective, Augusta National is in ethical violation as well. Humanistic ethicist Christopher Lyle believes that “To be humane suggests that one’s conduct is guided by a respect for and tenderness toward others’ beings. It suggests a prizing of these beings and a desire to protect and nourish them” (Johannesen, 2002, p. 49). Therefore, not allowing women to equally participate in networking with prominent businessmen at Augusta National shows a lack of respect for females in the business world. I truly believe that it is this lack of respect that intensifies the glass ceiling that women face in corporate America and encourages their dominant role in the private and domestic sphere.

Augusta National is not the only private golf club in the United States that closes its membership to women. So is it fair that this particular golf club is catching all the heat while all the other male-only golf clubs seem to go unnoticed? I believe it is. Although Augusta is a private club, it plays an important public role: hosting the Masters Tournament, one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the United States. This event draws in many spectators and extensive news coverage, and until the past two years, drew in large corporations such as Coca-Cola and IBM to sponsor the event. Because Augusta National is highly visible to the public, the organization has a greater social responsibility and should be held to a higher ethical standard. From a humanistic point of view, Augusta National should be responsive in its actions to the impact the club has on the humanity of those affected by its. Because the organization reaches and influences a magnitude of people each year and holds substantial influence over the Augusta community through the Masters, the impact of Augusta National’s viewpoint affects millions of people. Therefore, the organization has a responsibility to conduct itself in an ethical manner by treating women equally and respecting them, as well as developing an awareness, appreciation, and respect for humaneness.

The feud over Augusta National Golf Club has yet to cease. The organization continues to be a male-only club and the tradition of the Masters Tournament being played at their golf course remains. What can be done to end discrimination at the golf club? One road to take would be to argue that Augusta National Golf Club is not a private organization but indeed a public one. No longer would the organization be protected by privacy and freedom of association rights; rather, Augusta National would be mandated by law to open its membership to women.

Another direction to take would be for the organization to implement a board consisting of non-member stakeholders that would serve as a checks and balance system to assure that Augusta National is in compliance with its policies. The board would have the additional responsibility to make certain that the organization and its policies are fair and ethical.

I look back at my experience working at the engineering firm and realize that I was one of the few “lucky” women who were invited to play golf with the “big boys.” Had I known then the impact that golf could have on my career, I would have picked up a golf club in a heart beat and learn the game, despite my aversion to the sport. I wonder now what direction my career would have taken if I had taken up golf lessons and accompanied my boss to his weekly “meetings.” Would it have opened new doors and opportunities? Would I have made important business contacts and networked my way to a valuable marketing position? Or would the clients not have accepted me, sharing the belief that just like the fast-paced and sometimes brutal business world, the golf course was no place for a woman? Would they have forbidden me from their circle, just like Augusta National Golf Club?

Regardless, I finally decided to learn how to play the game a year ago. As hard as it was to do, I put aside all of my preconceived notions about the sport for the sake of my career. Surprisingly, after two months of learning and practicing, I found my feelings for golf changing from hate to a mere dislike. A month later, my feelings changed again from dislike to tolerable and my tic that I had developed from the four-letter word had miraculously disappeared. Today, I find myself living on a golf course, with my balcony facing the greens of the 16th hole. I anxiously await each month for the four free passes to play. These free passes were my main incentive for moving into the apartment. I even catch myself tuning into the Golf Channel every once in awhile. I spend many afternoons on my balcony, watching golfers play and studying their swing. Every so often I’ll see a little girl accompanied by her father, learning how to play. It brings a smile to my face. I think to myself, “Maybe by the time she grows up Augusta National Golf Club will open their doors to her.”


Johannesen, R.L. (2002). Ethics in human communication (5th ed). Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

Lewis, A. (2003, June). Martha Burk takes a swing. Progressive.

Wiscombe, J. (2002, June). Like it or not, golf can drive careers. Workforce.

Tina Valle is currently receiving her M.A. in Communication at Drury University. She received her Bachelors degree in Sociology at Santa Clara University and has worked as a Marketing Coordinator at various firms.