Observing change at the Masters

Someone get me Virginia Rometty. Pass on my congratulations to IBM's first female CEO. Not for assuming that lofty corporate perch, but for this: Whether it's today, tomorrow or soon (and it should be done before the first tee shot is struck on Thursday morning), she'll become Augusta National Golf Club's first female member.

It'll happen -- and it's about time. The guardians of Augusta National have no choice now but to order a green jacket tailored for a woman. Because IBM is one of only three corporate sponsors of the Masters -- along with Exxon Mobil and AT&T -- its past four CEOs (all men, of course) have been offered membership at Augusta, the last bastion of blatant gender discrimination on the major sports landscape.

Rometty will finally change all that.

Augusta National has no choice.

Just as it had no choice when I walked into the press room in the spring of 1987 as one of the few African-American sportswriters to cover the Masters. (Some have said I was the first black writer to cover the event, but I'm not 100 percent sure so I don't make that claim.) I was a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As such, it was only natural that I would be part of the newspaper's team covering golf's Super Bowl, and the biggest sports event in the region.

There was no fanfare about my arrival. There was no ban on blacks being at Augusta, just belonging to it -- as was the case then at pretty much every private country club nationwide.

We were still three years away from the virtual end of such exclusionary practices, a change sparked by the late Hall Thompson, president of the Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., site of the 1990 PGA Championship. Prior to the event, Thompson told a reporter the club did not discriminate in any way "except blacks." Those words touched off a national media firestorm that quickly caused advertisers to pull out of the PGA and forced golf's governing bodies to announce they would no longer allow clubs with exclusionary policies to host events. (Shoal Creek admitted its first black member that year, and other blacks, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have joined since.)

There was little indication in 1987 that golf would soon undergo such a seismic change, especially in the South.

It had been 26 years since a young woman named Charlayne Hunter (now fellow journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault) and a young man named Hamilton Holmes culminated a 2½-year court battle and became the first African-American students to be admitted to the University of Georgia. (Holmes and Hunter went to high school together; he was the valedictorian of their high-school class, and she was third in the class and editor of the school paper.) They arrived on Georgia's north campus as a crowd of fellow students and reporters -- yes, reporters -- chanted: "Two-four-six-eight, we don't want to integrate!"

It had been almost a quarter-century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, ending segregation in public facilities across the U.S. -- facilities like press rooms (which were segregated for many years at some ballparks).

Still, there was some tentativeness in my driving as I traversed the 145 miles between Atlanta and Augusta in '87 -- a black man driving alone. The speed limit, at least on that day, was my co-pilot.

However, as I arrived at Augusta National, as I passed each checkpoint en route to the press room, my trepidation dissipated. I strode through the press room door, where, just inside, a woman sat at a desk, checking off names of arriving reporters and handing them their coveted credentials. Her head was down as I reached the front of the line.

"Roy S. Johnson, Atlanta Constitution," I said.

She scanned the list without glancing upward, found my name and badge, then looked up to hand it to me.

"Lawdy, lawdy," she said with a drawl and a smile, obviously surprised to see a black man standing in front of her. "Welcome to Augusta."

I respect tradition. Family traditions. Religious traditions. Sports traditions, even. I respect traditions that convey respect.

The Masters exudes tradition. It's one of sports' iconic events, and a tee time on its stage is nirvana for golf fans. The green jacket awarded the champion is one of the most coveted "trophies" in sports, if not the most coveted.

During his pre-Masters press conference on Tuesday, Tiger Woods, a four-time Masters winner, was asked how it would feel to win and earn his 73rd PGA Tour victory, tying him with Jack Nicklaus for second-place on the all-time list. "I'd like the green jacket more," he said.

I have not been to Augusta National since the early 1990s -- then as the golf editor for Sports Illustrated. But I still vividly recall some of the club's other traditions, some not so worthy of respect.

There were blacks working in service positions, such as waiters and bartenders. They took orders and served food, and when it was time to pay the bill they even took your cash. But not a single one of them was allowed to reach into the cash register to obtain your change. A white man did that -- did I say this was the 1990s? -- and then handed it to the black waiter or bartender to deliver to the patron.

One laudable tradition was undertaken by the legendary golfer Lee Trevino. A Mexican-American, he hated the club's exclusionary policies, so for years in the 1970s -- when he wasn't boycotting -- he refused to use its facilities, even the locker room. Instead, he changed his shoes while sitting on the back bumper of his car in the parking lot, using his trunk as a locker.

And then there's the dying tradition: Black caddies have all but disappeared. As a kid I sometimes caught snippets of the Masters on television, but the only image I really recall is seeing that every caddie was black, while every golfer wasn't. (Lee Elder broke that barrier in 1975.) Knowing golf's history of discrimination, I placed that imagery into my anti-golf file until that summer of '87, when I learned that for those caddies, many of whom carried bags at Augusta National all year, Masters week was heaven-sent. Until 1983, when Augusta first allowed the pros to bring their own caddies, the club did not allow outside caddies onto the course. So the locals got the potentially lucrative bags (and paydays).

Now there's an opportunity for something new to take root at this famed venue.

Virginia Rometty will no doubt end Augusta National's tradition of testosterone, and soon don a green jacket of her own.

It's about time.