Question: Did Martha Burk, who wrote a letter to Augusta in 2002 and led a protest in 2003, help or hurt the cause?
Answer: I think Burk set back the process by years.
Sometimes a troubling bit of revisionism can reside in a single sentence. The question quoted above was posed by Golf Digest. The answer was provided by Golf Digest Editor, Marcia Chambers. As is often the case with revisionism, I have every confidence most readers will have missed it, or at least will wonder how it could possibly be relevant.
Chamber’s response revises history by her use of the word, process. Her sentence makes it appear that prior to Martha Burk there was a process in place at Augusta National to admit women members. This would be analogous to the contention that Rosa Parks set back the process pf racial desegregation by refusing to sit in the back of the bus in Alabama back in 1955.
Quite simply, organizations, whether golf clubs or municipal transit companies, do not like to be told what to do.
As I grow older, even small examples of revisionism are troubling to me. It’s easy for me to imagine a young person reading Chambers’ quote and imagining Burk as a common rabble-rouser just out to make trouble.
The PGA Tour’s history does not allow for much leeway when it comes to issues of equality. The end of its Caucasian Clause came in the year of my birth, 1961. It feels real to me since its stain continued into my own time.
Too long ago for you?
In 1984, Shoal Creek Country Club hosted the PGA Championship. At the time, the club had no black members. It is stunning to think that the PGA of 1984 wasn’t savvy enough to be aware of that fact at the time. If that’s easy enough to forgive, how can we forget that when 1990 rolled around the PGA again awarded Shoal Creek with its most prestigious tournament?
Though six years had passed, there were still no black members at Shoal Creek.
Fortunately, the Martha Burks of that time and place were not silent: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference threatened a boycott and sponsors like IBM pulled millions of dollars of commercial advertising from the broadcast. In a matter of weeks, Shoal Creek hastily accepted a local black businessman as an honorary member.
The only difference between Shoal Creek and Augusta National is muscle. In 1990, Shoal Creek feared both financial loss and a damaged reputation. Augusta did a simple calculation based upon the immense wealth of their brand and decided to weather what in the end was merely a bothersome squall of adverse of public opinion.
But know this:
Had Martha Burk stayed silent in 2002, today poor Condi Rice would probably be teeing it up at her local muny. The truth is Martha Burk started the very process Marcia Chambers now says she delayed.
Augusta National is a singularly magnificent golf course. Its co-founder, one of the great gentleman of sport this country has even known. But, its history is always complex and sometimes conflicted.
Marcia Chambers, by way of an implication, brought by a single word in one sentence, has only added to that complexity.
A comment from Martha Burk:
Thank you very much. The piece is a concise and very accurate frame, not only of Chambers’ statement but of the Shoal Creek situation and the response re ANGC. Maybe now that female members are allowed, the asterisk will be removed from the “official” PGA tour event list — an exception they carved our for Augusta in the wake of Shoal Creek when Augusta opened to African American men, but no women, contrary to the new PGA policy against race and sex discrimination. As you know, some clubs dropped out of the tour rather than admit women, but Augusta got to have it both ways.
As for Chambers, I am puzzled. She and I were in contact during the controversy, and she seemed to be entirely with me and what I was doing. Her book, The Unplayable LIe, had called attention to the problem of sex discrimination in golf long before I got involved.
Again, thanks for an honest and straightforward critique.