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Johnson's Augusta Remains for Men Only

Club chairman is as defiant as ever on issue of female membership

November 12, 2002|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Hootie Johnson isn't backing down.

Augusta National Golf Club, said its 71-year-old chairman, has no plans to admit a female member, no timetable for doing so and isn't budging.

The issue, he said, is resolved: "We are not altering our position."

Johnson pointed to the desk in his wood-paneled office, to the five black folders stuffed with letters.

"See that over there?" Johnson said. "Those are from people who support our position. There are probably about 500 or so of them."

Johnson got up from his chair, wearing the trademark green jacket that signifies membership in golf's most exclusive club. A portrait of Bobby Jones hung behind him on the wall of his wood-paneled office.

"People are sending us money, too, almost $1,000 so far, checks from $10 to $100. We're sending it all back, of course."

For the last five months, Johnson has been locked in a contentious battle with the National Council of Women's Organizations over the private club's all-male membership.

Beginning with a letter dated June 12, when Martha Burk of the NCWO first squared off against Johnson, Augusta National has been under heavy pressure from women's groups and some members of the media to admit its first female member before the 2003 Masters tournament is played in April.

Last week, Johnson met individually with representatives of the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, Augusta Chronicle and Associated Press. The news organizations agreed not to release their interviews until 9 p.m. PST Monday.

Johnson, who previously had refused to comment publicly, said he felt it was important to get the word out about the club's position.

Will there be a female member at Augusta National by the 2003 Masters? Johnson was blunt.

"No chance," he said.

"We have no exclusionary policies for women as far as membership, and I want to say right now that we are not altering our position. There is no timetable, nothing under consideration. We have not and will not change the way we conduct our business.

"We have something to say and we want to be very clear. Some people might have wanted us to pledge we would have a female member, but we aren't saying that. There is no timetable. The club will decide if there is a right time."

Johnson said he isn't sure if there will be demonstrators outside the gates of the club along Washington Road during the tournament, as Burk suggested, but he believes that this controversy might have a limited shelf life.

"I think it's going to blow over," he said.

"It depends on the American public. I think they'll get tired of it. I also predict that we'll have sponsors back at some point, maybe in 2004."

Johnson said that Burk inaccurately portrayed him and the Augusta National membership.

"She accuses us of being insensitive bigots and discriminatory. I don't think that's legitimate," he said. "We have a Constitutional right to run our club and we're not taking cover behind that. We believe it to be not only the correct way, but a most appropriate idea.

"I know that some people say the club should not enjoy its rights as a private club because of the Masters tournament, its public accommodation. I don't agree with that at all. We present one of the great sporting events, we do a lot of good, for charities, for the game of golf. We do a lot of good for America. People tell me it's something to look forward to in the spring, kind of an institution. It is an institution America can be proud of."

There have been unconfirmed reports that Johnson was among the doves in the club who were working to find a way to admit a female member. Johnson quickly shot down that rumor.

"I am not a dove," he said.

Nor, he said, is he an "insensitive bigot" or a "redneck" as Johnson says he has been characterized.

Johnson -- his given name is William but a playmate called him Hootie when he was 5 and he's been Hootie ever since -- was relaxed as he spoke, usually in short sentences, but long on message.

Whether or not the battle is over, it has been a long and controversial one. Burk's letter to Johnson in June urged the club to admit a female member. She wrote, "We know that Augusta National and the sponsors of the Masters do not want to be viewed as entities that tolerate discrimination against any group, including women. We urge you to open your membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year."

Johnson's three-sentence response on July 9 was delivered in a letter to Burk's desk by courier at the same time Augusta National released a strongly worded three-page statement to the media.

Johnson wrote to Burk that he found "your letter's several references to discrimination, allusions to sponsors and your setting of deadlines to be both offensive and coercive."

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