In a defiant statement about the privacy of Augusta National, chairman Hootie Johnson lashed out at a national women's group Tuesday for urging the club to have female members before next year's Masters.
"Our membership alone decides our membership - not any outside group with its own agenda," Johnson said in a surprisingly long and angry statement.
The National Council of Women's Organizations, which has about 6 million members from 160 groups, sent a letter to Johnson on June 12 after chairwoman Martha Burk read reports about Augusta National not having women among its 300 members.
Lloyd Ward, the first black CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and an Augusta member, said during the Masters that he would lobby to broaden the membership to include women.
"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," Burk said in the letter.
In a three-sentence reply that Burk received via overnight mail Wednesday, Johnson said he found the letter to be "offensive and coercive," and that there would be no more discussion with NCWO because Augusta membership matters are private.
"The response is insensitive at best and confrontational at worst," Burk said. "I and my groups are making a good-faith effort to urge the club to be fair, to not discriminate against women and basically to come into the 21st century.
"We were trying the olive-branch approach, but he's unwilling to talk."
Johnson had plenty to say in a three-page statement.
"The message delivered to us was clearly coercive," he said. "We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated. We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case."
Burk said NCWO's next step would be to contact the sponsors of the Masters - Coca-Cola, IBM and Citigroup - to ask them not to do business with a club that has no female members.
"I hope they'll respond positively," she said. "I find it interesting to think that if the club barred blacks, whether any sponsor would come near it in this day and age. Why should it be different for barring half of the population?"
Augusta National, built on a former nursery in northeastern Georgia, opened in 1932. The Masters was created in 1934 and has become the most famous golf tournament in the world. It usually gets the highest television ratings, too.
Tiger Woods won the Masters this year for the third time.
Johnson said in April that Augusta does not have exclusionary membership policies, although it did not have a black member until 1990 and, as Burk points out, has not had a female member in its 70-year history.
"Augusta National has no timetable for change," Johnson said, "as any such timetable would be artificial and unrealistic."
While there are no female members, Johnson recently invited the University of South Carolina women's golf team to play as his guest, and Karrie Webb and Kelly Robbins from the LPGA Tour played the course in May.
Johnson tried to draw a line between the privacy of the club and the public nature of the Masters tournament, attended by some 40,000 people.
Augusta National operates the Masters independent from any other golf organization, such as the PGA Tour. The club gets most of its money from an annual TV contract with CBS Sports and sales from its souvenir store at the course. Weekly tickets cost $125, half the cost of other major golf championships.
"Augusta National and the Masters - while happily entwined - are quite different," Johnson said. "One is a private golf club. The other is a world-class sports event of great public interest. It is insidious to attempt to use one to alter the essence of the other."
Burk suggested that if Augusta National does not have female members, the Masters should move to a club that does.
"The Masters, in my mind, is not tied at the hip to this club," she said. "An event of this profile could be held somewhere else."
The next major golf championship is the British Open, where Woods will try to win the third leg of the Grand Slam. It will be played at Muirfield in Scotland, a club that also does not have female members.
"I'm going to leave that for the British feminists," Burk said.
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