LPGA at Augusta would be must-see

The sight of LPGA pros playing the Women's British Open for only the second time on the Old Course at St. Andrews -- the Scottish links course widely considered the spiritual home of golf -- was always sure to spark some daydreaming that the Augusta National Golf Club would open its iconic course for a women's tournament, too, rather than stop at finally adding its first two female members last year. Especially since LPGA commissioner Mike Whan admits it's not for a lack of trying.

He makes the request to Augusta officials once a year.

But an unwanted reminder of just how unsettled gender politics in golf remain came at the July 17 news conference held on the eve of the men's Open Championship by Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, the St. Andrews-based group that, in conjunction with the USGA, presides over the world rules of golf. Dawson was grilled about having his organization called out by an elected official for the second time in two years -- this time by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond -- and picked apart for continuing to stage the men's Open Championship at all-male clubs such as the most recent host, Muirfield.

AP Photo/Ron Williams

While Augusta has not considered hosting a women’s tournament, it did finally allow two female members last year, one of whom was Condoleezza Rice.

Some of the defenses Dawson provided sounded vaguely as if they'd come from the same playbook once used by former Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson. Especially his remark about the R&A being disinclined to take on the criticism.

Neither the R&A nor Augusta National seems inclined to go further than it already has when it comes to addressing the disparate treatment men and women encounter in golf.

Augusta is the closest thing the United States has to St. Andrews. Both are iconic but famously insular clubs. Like St. Andrews, Augusta jealously guards its stature as the soul of the game in this country and promotes it energetically (and lucratively).

Augusta could host a women's tournament or even a women's major in addition to the Masters even though the private club shuts down the course from May to October every year. In 1937 and '38, the club was the site of the first two Senior PGA Championships. So adding another tournament is merely a question of want to, and would not break precedent. Whan says he has asked the club to consider hosting a women's pro event every year since he took office in 2010, two years before Augusta finally accepted two female members.

So far, Augusta has had no public response.

But comparing how the R&A and Augusta choose to handle gender issues is a reminder of the convoluted ways the sport of golf continues to deal with women, period.

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Lorena Ochoa was the proud winner of the Women’s British Open the first time it was played at St. Andrews, in 2007. There were no concerns about it “diluting’’ the prestige of the venue.

How is it that the staid old Scottish club that still doesn't admit women is helping to host a women's major on the course adjacent to its clubhouse -- but the American club that does admit women won't even publicly acknowledge that a request to host a women's tournament has been broached?

The answer is typical of golf: a labyrinthine trail of tortured logic and halfway accommodations. It's enough to make you question whether the outcomes qualify as unadulterated progress that women should welcome, or if they're just a sly way of letting the exclusion of women remain institutionalized in golf to a still-annoying degree.

Golf is good at muddying the issues. In 1996, when Judy Bell became the first female president of the United States Golf Association, America's governing body for the sport, she was not granted R&A courtesy membership as every USGA president before her had been.

Augusta National? The club is such a private beehive of America's corporate power elite, it has historically invited IBM's chief executive officer to join its ranks (though not necessarily when that person first takes the job). But Ginni Rometty, who became IBM's first female CEO in 2012, is still waiting for her public invitation to join.

Aspects of how the Women's British Open wound up being played at St. Andrews also involve some looking the other way.

It starts with the rather surprising fact that even the LPGA itself does not have an explicit written clause in its constitution that prevents it from playing at clubs that have all-male memberships.

Is that just smart business for a struggling tour and a pragmatic view of the biased world the LPGA operates in? Or is it opportunism -- a self-created "out" just in case Augusta or some iconic club that still doesn't allow female members does come calling? Probably both.

"Even though it's not written in our constitution, taking a tournament to an all-male club is not something we have done in practice," tour spokesman Mike Scanlan says.

That remains technically true when it comes to St. Andrews hosting the Women's British Open, because of a distinction many casual fans may not know. A warning: It's confusing.

The Old Course itself is a public, town-run track that allows both men and women to play as long as they pay the fee.

It's the private Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, the 259-year-old club that sits at the head of the course, that still does not allow female members.

The Royal & Ancient no longer governs all golf outside the United States and Mexico -- in 2004, it created the ancillary group known simply as the R&A (which Dawson now runs) to take over those duties -- but it still gets to say who gets into its club. And women still are personae non gratae.

So technically speaking, the LPGA isn't playing the Women's British Open at a private all-male club -- it's playing the tournament on a gender-blind public course that sits beside it but has no "official" relationship with the all-male club itself, except that the club is letting the LPGA players use its clubhouse during tournament week.

So you could even see how Dawson might have felt very well within his rights to sit at his news conference at Muirfield and contend -- as he emotionally did after abandoning his prepared notes -- that the R&A did not deserve to be attacked by "posturing politicians" and overly "energetic" media members, whom Dawson said had their own agendas.

What he could have gone on to say was that compared with, say, Augusta, the R&A actually has been more progressive, in some ways.

The Royal & Ancient itself, the most revered club in Scotland, is ahead of its American counterpart when it comes to throwing open its doors to host a women's tournament.

What Dawson did not argue is that making the great courses of Britain available for the Women's British Open has "diluted" any of those places' aura or prestige -- a concern some Augusta members have voiced about hosting another tournament there, according to Whan.

But three points Dawson did argue at his July 17 news conference are the same assertions Augusta's leadership has maintained:

That all-male policies do no "harm" to the sport of golf.

The all-male membership is merely exercising its right to free association.

That all-male membership is not illegal.

The last two assertions are true.

But what "harm" is done is in the eye of the beholder.

AP Photo/Morry Gash

When Billy Payne led Atlanta’s Olympic effort in 1996, he lamented the lack of men’s and women’s golf at Augusta during the Games. Now, as Augusta’s chairman, he’s in a position to give women a chance.

Many women will tell you they do not feel welcome in golf. That's even true for women who play the game regularly and play it extremely well. Some clubs have done symbolic things, such as the push to rename women's tees with the gender-neutral term "forward tees" -- but then kept traditions like men's-only tee times.

Making way for the best female pros in the world to play at the game's greatest venues, such as Augusta National or St. Andrews, is more than a way to take new measure of their skills.

On a practical and symbolic level, it can help close golf's gender divide.

It also could help grow a portion of the game that needs help growing.

The LPGA Tour had dipped to 23 events worldwide by the time Whan became commissioner three years ago. It is up to 28 now, but only 18 of those remain in North America. Increasing exposure is a major goal. The season kicks off overseas weeks before it finally hits American shores, and only one tournament -- the U.S. Women's Open -- is on American network TV (NBC). ESPN2 carries the Women's British. The Golf Channel handles the rest.

An LPGA visit to Augusta would be a must-see event.

Whan is careful to point out Augusta donates a "six-figure" amount to the tour's girls' golf initiatives. Last year, he told Forbes magazine: "I don't think it's a guilt check. Maybe it is."

He should keep pushing Augusta National and its chairman, Billy Payne, to consider a tournament, even if an industry source admits, "It's just a once-a-year conversation they have. That's pretty much it." Whan renews his request when golf executives meet at the Masters each year.

Back when Payne led the 1996 Atlanta Olympics effort, he tried to talk Augusta into hosting men's and women's golf during the Games and later called his failure to do so his "biggest personal disappointment."

On the eve of the Games, he told reporters, "It's clear the biggest thing missing here is golf at Augusta."

The observation is still true for the women's game. But Payne has a better chance to change that now than he did in '96, when he wasn't running the club.

Beyond that? If the Augusta or R&A members chafe at being criticized for their gender politics, as Dawson did two weeks ago, it's hard to feel sorry for them.

That's the price of the primacy they enjoy in the game, and the positions of power and influence they are only too happy to flaunt. When it suits them.

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