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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Members-Only Jacket Outdated at Augusta


When boys build a neat treehouse, "Members Only" is the first sign that goes up. Though, at the age when such things matter, the "s" in "members" may be printed backward. You need a special handshake, maybe give a drop of blood. As for icky girls, they can't come in at all. The most famous treehouse in America for little boys of all ages is located in the Georgia pines of Augusta. It's "Spanky and Our Gang" for millionaires. Even Billy Gates, the rich kid, wants to join. But they won't let him in. Maybe if he lowers his handicap.

Now--and this has really got Spanky, Alfalfa and Hootie spitting on their cowlicks and getting rocks for their slingshots--the girls want to join the club. OK, just one girl, maybe. But that would be enough to spoil the whole effect. Why, she might show up any time. Even when you're boiling a frog. What fun is that?

These days, it's amazing to watch the escalating playground politics between the wealthy men of Augusta, who've worked up a high moral outrage because their treehouse may be invaded, and the insistent National Council of Women's Organizations.

Martha Burk, chairwoman of NCWO, has done her job. She's supposed to put social and economic pressure on real, or symbolic, discriminators against women. The Masters, with its horrid record for decades on racial discrimination, is as symbolic as it gets.

Augusta Chairman William (Hootie) Johnson responded to a letter from Burk, pushing for a woman member by the next Masters, by going ballistic. Open mouth, insert soft spikes. The Masters wouldn't be "intimidated" or yield to pressure. Their timetable would be their own. And, by the way, women play a thousand rounds a year at Augusta already. (OK, that's three a day.) How's that for progress? If your husband is a member, you can even tee off before noon. Just like an actual ... well ... man.

Next, Burk went to the Masters' TV sponsors--IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup--to see how they felt about being associated with a club that excludes women members. Standard arm twisting. Welcome to America. As if all the CEO members at Augusta don't do the same thing to further their interests in business every day.

The Masters went double ballistic. They told IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup that they were no longer needed. Think we can be pressured? Just watch. The Masters would foot all its own bills, do without TV sponsors and broadcast 12 hours of Masters coverage without a single commercial.

''I'm surprised at the amount of money they are willing to pay to continue to discriminate against women,'' said Burk, who must want to nominate Johnson as Man of the Year for all the help he's been. You can't buy PR like this for any price: A man named ''Hootie'' thinks there's no woman on earth worthy of his club.

Naturally, Burk has chewed her way up the food chain and is now calling of pro golfers to take a ''moral stand.'' This should be interesting. The average PGA pro, including Tiger Woods so far, thinks that moving your ball in the rough should be punishable by death, but solving world hunger isn't in his domain.

CBS says it hasn't gotten an earful from Burk yet. Turn up your hearing aides, guys. That's Martha beating on the wall. And the noise is only going to get louder.

There's a solution to all this. And it's easy. Come on, Hootie, just take a mulligan. You've hit one 50 yards out of bounds. Everybody knows it. Don't try to pretend you're going to find your ball. Go back to the tee. Take your medicine. And try to hit the next one in the fairway. Why not call Nancy Lopez, who lives in Atlanta? She can afford the initiation and dues. Her husband, Ray Knight, the ex-World Series MVP, would faint with joy. She can play the back tees. Ray can move up.

So far, most of the criticism of the Masters has been of the joshing, eye-rolling variety. But it's important that Johnson, who's normally sensible, understand the seriousness of what he's facing. If he doesn't regain his senses pretty soon, he's going to feel like he's been run over by a truck. Of course his position is technically correct. "This is not a legal issue," the club wrote to ESPN this week, offering "talking points" in its defense. "The Masters has a constitutional right to its private membership."

That's true. And so what? If you step in the street when the sign says, "Walk," but a 16-wheeler is coming at you, do you jump out of its way? Or do you say, "It's legal for me to stand here."

In the scheme of things, equal rights for women is one of the most fundamental social issues in history. The women's movement, like all "causes," will presumably manifest itself in ways that range from profound to frivolous. Fighting with the Masters probably falls in the middle.

But what "cause" is Augusta National fighting for? Hootie and his Blowhards, as they're now being called nationwide, appear to be defending the right of rich guys in ugly jackets to thumb their noses at anybody anytime, while throwing money at any problem.

Burk is on a collision course with Johnson, but she's blowing her horn to warn him. Hootie, head down, is peddling his tricycle as fast as he can right at her big rig. Champions dinner: Road kill.

Once, Augusta National allowed itself to be seen--perhaps even enjoyed being seen--as one of the last brazen symbols of racial discrimination in America. Back then, the club learned what the full weight of negative public opinion felt like. It bent. It changed, to a degree. And the Masters has been better for it. With the years, with Lee Elder's arrival and Tiger Woods' three victories, it's become easier to let Augusta National's leaders off the hook.

However, the club can put itself right back in the nation's crosshairs.

An all-male golf club is constitutional. But if the Masters also wants to remain the most popular golf tournament in a half-male world, it's far from smart.

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