Why Augusta Matters

Illustration by Newsweek (source photo): Tan Badz / PGA Tour-Getty Images

One small green jacket for woman; one giant step for womankind. In a move that prompted a collective yawn and the occasional “it’s about time” grumble, Augusta National Golf Club last week announced its first two female members: former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore. Walk-on-the-moon news? Not even close. Hugely symbolic for women? You bet.

Augusta National is a private club, and private clubs are, well, private. Which is to say, they have a right to admit—and exclude—whomever they choose. Augusta National symbolizes the ultimate “boys’ club” for CEOs. For women clawing their way up the corporate ladder, exclusion from boys’ clubs represents not only a symbolic roadblock to equality, but also a real roadblock to progress. In a study done by Catalyst, asking businesswomen to name the greatest impediment to their success in business, 46 percent cited “exclusion from informal networks,” and golf was the No. 1 network cited.

Opportunities to build informal networks—through pickup basketball games, after-work beers, and yes, golf—are more plentiful for men than for women. And it is through those networks that professional relationships are forged. When business gets tough, as it always does, those bonds hold strong. Business built on transactions will come and go; business built on relationships is durable, so the ability to build those relationships is crucial.

What is it about golf? Well for starters, there’s the four to five hours spent on the course, away from the office and hopefully with the cellphone turned off. More important, there’s the insight into a person’s soul that provides the foundation for a relationship: How does your client feel about risk? Is she a person of integrity? Can he count every stroke it takes to get the ball in the hole? Does she have a sense of humor, an ability to laugh at herself? How does he express anger or frustration? People’s character oozes out their every pore on the golf course.

Women need to join “informal networks” whenever the opportunity arises. Entry to such networks generally does not come with a formal invitation, à la the recent Augusta news. You want to join? You have to show up. Too often, fear of embarrassment and intimidation are mentioned by women as reasons for not getting on the golf course. And it’s time to acknowledge that those hurdles, real though they are for women, are also self-imposed.

Condi and Darla have cracked open the door to the ultimate boys’ club. Time for the rest of us to pick up a golf club, say thank you to them, and shove doors open all the way to the boardroom.