A Legacy To Inspire – Thomas H. Wyman and Gender Equality at Augusta National

Nestled in between the various announcements posted on the HBS course platform, was a brief notice reporting the recent passing of Thomas H. Wyman. My heart sank as I stared at my screen and reflected on the loss of a phenomenal leader and the interview that never was.

For the last few months I had been corresponding with Mr. Wyman, hot on his trail with the goal of sitting down and discussing his formidable career and recent resignation from the Augusta National Golf Club (Augusta National). On the appointed day in December in which we were to meet to discuss the interview, I received an email that he had checked into the hospital and would check back in January.

Any budding reporter would leap many times over for the opportunity to interview such an accomplished executive as Wyman, who had steered the helms of such global corporations as CBS, Nestle and Polaroid, in addition to his current role as a professor at HBS and MIT’s Sloan School of Business. Most recently however, Mr. Wyman made international headlines with his resignation from the Augusta National in protest of its continued refusal to allow women membership. The resignation single-handedly forced the corporate titans and world-class athletes that comprise the 300 members of the club to directly address and respond to its discriminatory ways.

For those of you not familiar with the Augusta National, it is considered one of our nation’s most private clubs, which stands alone in hosting the Masters, the world’s most watched and prestigious golf tournament each year on the pristine rolling courses of Augusta, Georgia. The tournament is revered by golf fans globally and winning the Masters represents the pinnacle of any golfer’s dreams.

The controversy began in the fall of 2002 when activist Martha Burke of the National Council for Women’s Organizations, sent a private letter to the Chairman of the August National, Hootie Johnson, protesting the club’s refusal to admit women. Johnson, in what will no doubt forever be cited as one of the worst PR moves ever, responded with a raging press release declaring that the Augusta National would not be bullied into opening its exclusive male membership to women. Johnson’s next order of business was to declare the 2003 tournament “advertisement free” in order to eliminate pressure being exerted through companies purchasing prime time television coverage. Burke, although slightly stunned, was not one to waste the opportunity of a lifetime, and has been meeting with the press ever since as part of a deliberate and highly publicized campaign to force the club to open its doors to women once and for all.

Mr. Wyman’s following resignation on Nov 27, 2002, promoted a rigorous and heated debate on the societal role and responsibilities of a private club, whose tournament is religiously watched and followed around the world, and catapulted the Augusta National into the international spotlight.

Wyman’s motivation to resign was reportedly driven by his view that the inclusion of women members was no different than the admission of black members to the Augusta National in 1990, and by the continued statement by Johnson that there had been no complaints by the members of the club regarding its exclusion of women to the club.

Wyman however estimated that 25%, a full 75 of the club’s 300 members, disagreed with Johnson’s decision to refuse admission to women and he hoped that his resignation would prompt other members to join his lead.

Wyman’s resignation was then followed by that of John W. Snow, the newly appointed Treasury Secretary in the Bush administration. Since then, Sanford Weill, Citigroup chairman; Kenneth Chenault, president of American Express; and Lloyd Ward, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, have each reportedly made the argument directly to the members of the Augusta National to allow women into their membership.

While it is within the legal rights of a private club to refuse membership to women, the argument advanced by Wyman and many others is that the Augusta National in effect gave up its right to privacy when the Masters became the world’s most famous golf tournament and became the standard for all golfers, both male and female, around the globe.

When one further considers that the vast majority of the club’s members and sponsors of the tournament do not allow for the exclusion of women in their own corporations and indeed would likely not stand for such behavior in their personal lives, it begs the question why there apparently is room for such obvious discrimination on their golf course.

To add injury to insult, it has recently been reported that many of the members are suspected of having their Augusta fees, estimated at $25,000 annually, paid by their companies, making for some rather awkward conversations at board rooms across America.

And so I was left staring at our course platform and wondering how Wyman would have answered what had become my long list of prepared questions. Would he have predicted that more members would soon quit the club in protest? Did he believe that the values and standards chief executives promote as the leaders of corporate America should be consistent with how they behave in their personal lives? What was his advice on how HBS students should prepare themselves for the difficult ethical and moral decisions that inevitably lie ahead in their lives and careers? Did he have any specific suggestions on how to support and develop the role of women in the workplace? And finally, why now – after reportedly 25 years of membership, did Wyman make the decision to turn in his membership?

Perhaps he had become wiser in his later years or had simply learned differently along the way of his long and successful career in the hallways of corporate America. Maybe he had become acutely aware that life is deceptively short and figured he had nothing to lose. While Wyman will take these and many other answers to his grave, I am convinced that he has achieved his purpose by forcing us all, including the 300 odd members of the Augusta National, to consider and respond to these tough questions.

So keep an eye out for the Masters this year – as there is likely to be some great golf played in addition to quite a bit of noise generated by many loud and determined protestors outsides the gates of what is notoriously a very private club. Something tells me however, that Wyman will be looking down upon us, content to watch us take his lead and finish this debate once and for all.