* President Obama, challenger Romney join the call
* Women can play the course only if invited by member
AUGUSTA, Ga, April 6 Political pressure mounted
on Friday for Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the
Masters tournament, to bend its ban on women members to allow
the female chief executive of tournament sponsor IBM to join the
President Barack Obama and his likely Republican challenger
in the race for the White House, Mitt Romney, both said on
Thursday the conservative, all-male club should admit women.
On Friday, former presidential candidate and Arizona Senator
John McCain joined the chorus, posting on Twitter: "Don't you
think it's time Augusta National joined the 21st century - or
the 20th - and allowed women members?"
The controversy concerns Virginia Rometty, the 54-year-old
former IBM global sales chief tapped in October to head IBM,
which is a leading sponsor of the glamorous tournament.
Traditionally, the CEO of a major corporate sponsor is
granted club membership and given one of Augusta's famous green
jackets, which go to the winner of one of the world's most
celebrated sporting events. Four previous male IBM chief
executives have been granted membership to Augusta.
At a pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday, Augusta
Chairman Billy Payne repeatedly refused to comment on whether
Rometty would be offered membership.
"We don't talk about our private deliberations," Payne said
in response to a question. "We especially don't talk about it
when a named candidate is a part of the question."
The club has stubbornly adhered to the all-male membership
rule, even when it came under intense scrutiny over the issue a
In 2002, a heated war of words erupted between Augusta's
then-chairman William "Hootie" Johnson and Martha Burk, the
former chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations.
She attacked the club's males-only policy as sexist. At the
time, 15 percent of the club's membership were CEOs, many of
them from Fortune 500 companies. Burk argued the exclusion meant
women were at a disadvantage at social events where business
relationships are often formed.
Johnson said Augusta was just a single-sex organization,
like the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts.
The controversy led two high-profile members of Augusta to
resign from the club. John Snow, former President George W.
Bush's nominee for Treasury Secretary, resigned before he was
confirmed in that post. Thomas Wyman, a former CBS television
network CEO left the club, calling its policy "pigheaded."
IBM has tried to steer clear of the controversy.
"We don't comment on our executives' travel schedules," IBM
spokesman Edward Barbini said on Friday in response to a
question on whether Rometty would attend the event, which
concludes on Sunday.
Augusta's invitation-only membership has been steeped in
secrecy since the conservative club opened in 1932. Women are
allowed to play the course if invited by a member but cannot
become members themselves.
The club does not reveal its full list of members, believed
to be around 300, although it is known that some of the most
powerful men in industry and finance are members, including
Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffett.