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The Masters Plays Through Georgia’s Voting Law Controversy


Georgia has become a cultural flashpoint over a new voting law. It has thrust the state’s biggest businesses and even Major League Baseball, which removed its All-Star Game from the state, into taking pointed stances on the legislation. 

Almost everyone who’s anyone in Georgia, including Coca-Cola Co. and

Delta Air Lines Inc,

has had something to say about the law—except the Augusta National Golf Club, which is set to stage Georgia’s most celebrated annual sporting event, the Masters, this week. 

With the Masters teeing off in the eye of this hurricane, the question is whether it can again count on its rich golf history, iconic setting and famous azaleas to keep attention on the golf tournament when controversy calls. That’s the strategy Augusta has used repeatedly to navigate when critics have questioned the club’s practices and demographic makeup.

So far, Augusta National, its high-profile members, the tournament’s biggest corporate sponsors and even broadcasters have handled the situation and its convergence with the Masters with the same sound heard when golfers stand over a putt: silence.

“It’s a widely televised event and people are watching,” said James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP. “The expectation is that anytime there is injustice happening, we want everybody to speak out.”

A spokeswoman for Augusta National Golf Club deferred comment to the club’s chairman,

Fred Ridley.

He has not yet spoken publicly on the matter, and is scheduled to give a press conference Wednesday.

Leading Masters sponsors including

International Business Machines Corp.

and Rolex also declined to comment on their relationship with the tournament;

Mercedes-Benz

and AT&T Inc. did not respond to inquiries.

Prominent Augusta members including Berkshire Hathaway chairman

Warren Buffett,

philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft

Bill Gates

and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not respond to inquiries about their plans, or whether they had communicated with the club over the issue. An MLB spokesman declined to answer whether commissioner Rob Manfred, who’s a member, would attend just a week after pulling the All-Star game from the state. 

Representatives for Augusta members Emerson Electric Co. chief executive

David Farr,

and former Democratic Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn declined to comment. “Senator Nunn recommends that if you want to discuss anything related to Augusta or the tournament that you contact their chairman of the club,” a spokeswoman said. 

And IBM, whose former chief executive

Ginni Rometty

is also an Augusta member, said that “we don’t comment on the travel plans of our current or former executives.”

Even the Atlanta Braves, which on Friday said the MLB decision to relocate the All-Star Game meant that “we will miss the opportunity to address issues that are important to our community,” did not respond to inquiries about the plans of chairman Terry McGuirk, another club member, or whether he had communicated with the club about how to handle the controversy during the tournament. 

Bryson DeChambeau tees off on the 7th hole during a practice round at the 2021 Masters.



Photo:

justin lane/Shutterstock

Corporate and political blowback is not unfamiliar territory for Augusta National, which has long faced questions about the demographics of the club’s members. In 2002, the Masters faced a call to boycott the event from a women’s advocacy group over the club’s exclusively male membership. In response, and in order to deflect potential pressure from corporate sponsors, the Masters went commercial free for two years. A decade after the controversy, the club admitted its first woman members.   

At issue now is a law passed by Republicans that tightens requirements around absentee voting, in particular, which backers say are needed to preserve election integrity and which opponents say will make it harder for voters in underrepresented communities to cast ballots.

The National Black Justice Coalition, an activist group, entered last week demanding that the All-Star Game be moved and the Masters moved or boycotted. With the All-Star win under its belt, it renewed a call for “the PGA Tour and Masters Tournament to follow the leadership of Major League Baseball in standing up for civil rights.”  

Corporate criticism and refusal to do business in Georgia have inflamed Republicans, however, and a boycott is tricky for Democrats too. 

The most recognizable Democrats in Georgia, newly elected senators

Jon Ossoff

and

Raphael Warnock,

and voting rights activist and 2018 gubernatorial nominee

Stacey Abrams,

all say they oppose the law, appreciate institutions speaking out, and regret the economic impact of the boycott — which they say should be blamed on Republicans.

“I respect boycotts, although I don’t want to see Georgia families hurt by lost events and jobs. Georgians targeted by voter suppression will be hurt as opportunities go to other states,” Abrams said in a lengthy statement posted on Twitter

Even the White House is deferring on the Masters. Two days before MLB pulled the All-Star Game from Georgia, President Biden had said in an ESPN interview ahead of Opening Day that he would support such a move. 

Spokeswoman

Jen Psaki,

asked Monday, said that on the All-Star Game, Biden “was asked a direct question… and he answered the question.” Pressed on how he might consider the Masters, she said only: “Our focus is on doing what we can to advocate for making voting easier and more accessible around the country. And that’s where our efforts are going to be from the White House.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, the Republican who defeated Abrams, accused MLB of “a lack of courage to stand up to the lies of a radical mob hellbent on distorting the truth for political gain.” 

Republicans have begun working up counter-protests against MLB, with some congressional lawmakers calling to revoke the league’s antitrust exemption.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

said he would not throw out the first pitch at a Rangers game because of the All-Star Game relocation. Some state Republican legislators have also threatened to drink Pepsi. 

Debate over the voting law will likely extend beyond the Masters. The PGA Tour said it will keep the 2021 Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. In a statement, the PGA Tour said its “intention to stage an event in a particular market should not be construed as indifference to the current national conversation around voting rights.” 

This 2021 Masters, coming just five months after the last one because of a pandemic-caused postponement in 2020, also begins with a rare gesture from the highly exclusive and notoriously private club that could be considered a political nod to the times. 

For the first time this year, Lee Elder—the first Black player to compete in the Masters, in 1975—will join golf greats Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in hitting the ceremonial opening tee shot.

“We’ve been moved by the events of 2020,” Ridley, Augusta National’s chairman, said in November. “There’s been a lot said about racial justice and opportunity, and our question was not so much what can we say but what can we do.”  

Few interests are more deeply enmeshed with the Masters than the television broadcasters. They, too, are lining up their shots carefully.

ESPN, which airs the Masters on Thursday and Friday, declined to comment on the voting law, saying it was beyond the company’s purview. 

Over the weekend, the tournament airs on CBS, and in a previous statement ViacomCBS said it opposes Georgia’s new law. A person familiar with the company’s thinking said to expect the traditional coverage—sticking to the golf. 

—Sabrina Siddiqui contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com and Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8





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