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Her Master Plan

Martha Burk takes on Augusta, CBS and Hootie as she seeks to end discrimination

September 05, 2002|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She is the leader of a women's group that has zeroed in on forcing the most powerful and historic golf club in the nation to admit its first female member. And now, if that weren't enough, Martha Burk is threatening to add a new, auxiliary target in her fight: CBS.

The network that has broadcast the Masters the last 46 years has a simple choice, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations said: "They will come down on the side of bigotry, or they can reconsider their position."

In a Wednesday conference call with the NCWO's 10-member board of directors, Burk received approval to appeal to CBS and the USA Network that they drop coverage of the Masters "and stop underwriting discrimination."

And the married, 60-year-old mother of two boys isn't stopping there. She wants to examine the makeup of the decision-making group at CBS that has said it plans to go ahead and televise the Masters when it is played at the private Augusta National Golf Club next April.

"How many women are in top management as opposed to the clerical pool, and how much are they paid?" Burk said in a telephone interview.

Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, declined to comment when reached at his home Wednesday night. Earlier in the day, CBS issued a statement that it plans to continue televising the event--news that came as no surprise to the many media insiders who seem convinced that another network would quickly move to pick up the coverage if CBS backed out.

Before Wednesday, Burk and her group had, with some success, concentrated their efforts in trying to dissuade sponsors Citigroup, IBM and Coca-Cola from supporting the tournament.

Hootie Johnson, Augusta's president, responded last Friday by dropping television sponsorship for 2003. That way, he said, the sponsors wouldn't be "pressured" by the women's groups.

But that announcement, and the timing of it, has only raised Burk's ire. She suggested that by choosing the start of a holiday weekend to make his proclamation, Johnson was trying to avoid a spotlight.

"They thought it would be all over by Tuesday, they could hit when the other guy can't hit back, that this would die a natural death," Burk said.

Burk, who advances her case with a wit as dry as the summer in her East Texas hometown of Tyler, hasn't let that happen. And as the point person of a crusade backed by an umbrella organization that represents some 160 women's groups, she now has other targets in mind.

She intends to contact Augusta National members and find out who pays their dues. If it's a corporation, she said she will contact it. She also expressed optimism that some members of the men's professional tour might speak out against the private club.

Those hopes took a hit Wednesday when former Masters champion Mark O'Meara and three other PGA Tour players said they would not pressure the 70-year-old club to admit women as members.

Augusta "is a private club and they can choose who they want to include," said O'Meara, the 1998 Masters and British Open champion. "If you don't like the policy, don't go to the tournament."

Bob Tway, Mike Weir and Scott Verplank, in interviews at the Canadian Open, also defended Augusta. Verplank said the NCWO should be concerned with more important women's issues.

"Why aren't they doing more for women in Afghanistan?" Verplank said.

Burk said her group has raised millions in support of women's rights in Afghanistan, but that it is also interested in breaking bastions of all-male clubs. "Nobody can accuse me of not dealing with real issues," Burk said. "If [golfers] don't want to step across the line for women, that's sad."

So far, support has been no less forthcoming from the women's tour. Amy Alcott, a member of the LPGA's Hall of Fame, said the two times she has played Augusta are "a true highlight" of her career. "I was treated with the utmost respect," Alcott said

"I feel it would be great, and also keeping with the times, to have women as members. But it's not easy for a man to be admitted either. It's a private club that should be able to have its own guidelines for membership."

Tour veteran Dottie Pepper, interviewed by Dan Patrick on ESPN radio on Wednesday, also defended Augusta's right to remain private.

Few expect such comments to deter Burk, who, despite some early setbacks, still considers the stance taken by Johnson and Augusta to be an unpopular one. "I'm at a loss [to explain it]," she said. "And I've got a PhD in psychology."

Burk has been an available, quotable news subject since the issue of whether all-male Augusta National, where the Masters is played each April, ought to admit women as members was raised earlier this month. Women are allowed to play the course only as guests of a member.

"I think it's the 21st century," said Burk, who played golf as a youngster but no longer does. "These guys need to come into it."

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