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Augusta in the Rough

October 02, 2002

The industry titans and golf superstars at the Augusta National Golf Club have lobbed a big one into the sand trap, all right.

For 70 years, the Augusta National has been a world where men are men and women are, well, guests. Since the 1930s, Augusta's famous green jackets have rested only on broad, manly shoulders--every one of them white until 1975 when Lee Elder became the first black person to play the prestigious Masters Tournament the club hosts every April. And not until 1990 did the club accept its first African American member. But women, no matter what color, can still play the Augusta course only if a member accompanies them, making the celebrated Big Bertha club a more regular presence on the driving range than any real live Berthas or Lindas or Susans.

Now some women want in as equals, and this exclusive club that likes to keep its business private, thank you, has been forced into a nasty public battle.

This dust-up started last spring after Lloyd Ward, one of the club's few black members and an official with the United States Olympic Committee, announced that it's high time the club admitted a woman. Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, picked up Ward's suggestion, urging Augusta's chairman, William "Hootie" Johnson, in a letter to add a woman to the rolls before next year's Masters.

Johnson blasted back with a three-page declaration that Augusta would not be bullied "at the point of a bayonet." When he learned Burk then planned to pressure the three big corporate sponsors of the Masters, Johnson announced that he would drop the sponsors and foot the tournament without their $5 million in fees. Burk then turned to CBS, but officials with the network, which has broadcast the Masters since 1956, ducked the issue of discrimination altogether and insisted they would still televise the tournament next spring. "To not do so would be a disservice to the fans of this major championship," wrote CBS Sports President Sean McManus.

Burk is now making her case directly to some of the corporate leaders among Augusta's members, trying to shame them. And club members are beginning to talk quietly about opening Augusta to women, if only to end the bad press.

Legally, the Augusta National is entitled to reserve its acres of manicured lawns and blooming azaleas just for men. And whether wealthy, well-connected women are allowed to share tee times with wealthy, well-connected men is not an issue that can rally the defenders of the oppressed. But as Johnson and his pals are discovering, what you resist persists, and Burk and the women behind her are not going away. The more the men of Augusta National cling to the rules of the past, the more they seem entrapped by them.

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