Originally created 07/10/02

Augusta National membership



Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Hootie Johnson says the club won't be "bullied" into admitting women members.

Mr. Johnson responded Tuesday to the National Council of Women's Organizations demand that the club admit women before the next Masters Tournament.

In a letter addressed to Mr. Johnson and dated June 12, Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the council, wrote that "we urge you to review your policies and practices in this regard, and open your membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year."

In a three-paragraph response that was delivered to the council's Washington headquarters Tuesday, Mr. Johnson said "... Augusta National Golf Club is a distinctly private club and, as such, cannot talk about its membership and practices with those outside the organization.

"I have found your letter's several references to discrimination, allusions to the sponsors and your setting of deadlines to be both offensive and coercive.

"I hope you will understand why any further communication between us would not be productive."

In a prepared statement released to the media, Mr. Johnson said, "We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated. ... We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case."

While holding out the possibility that the club would consider admitting women in the future, Mr. Johnson said there is no timetable for such admission, and refused to engage in "backroom discussions" with the council over the matter.

Augusta National, founded by legendary golfer Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts in 1932, has been the site of the annual Masters Tournament since 1934. The club has never had a female member. It admitted its first minority member, Ron Townsend, in 1990.

The club currently has about a half-dozen minority members, an Augusta National spokesman said Tuesday. Women, like any other guests, are allowed to play Augusta National at any time as long as they are accompanied by a member.

Augusta National was scheduled to play host to golf events for men and women as part of the 1996 Summer Olympics before objections over the club's membership policies derailed the proposal.

Augusta National has fewer than 300 members and does not have any restrictions based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin. In the prepared statement, the club said existing members' suggestions for new members have broadened to include a cross-section of society.

"It is the 21st century. We know that they cannot be legally compelled to do this. We know that they don't have anything in writing that they don't allow women," Dr. Burk said. "But that is a very disingenuous position since they have been around since 1932 and have not invited a woman to join."

The National Council of Women's Organizations is the nation's largest and oldest coalition of women's groups. Founded in 1980, the 160 groups represent 6 million women.

"We are mainstream female America," Dr. Burk said.

The council decided to take action when Dr. Burk saw articles in a national newspaper during this year's Masters Tournament about the club's lack of female members.

"My job is to promote equity for women in all aspects of business and commerce," Dr. Burk said. "I thought it was something we should get involved in."

She would not rule out the possibility of pickets or contacting television sponsors (Coca-Cola, IBM and Citigroup) about the matter.

In his statement Tuesday, Mr. Johnson said he expects a "full-scale effort to force Augusta National to yield to NCWO's will."

"He has made it very clear that he is not going to talk to us," Dr. Burk said. "I would rather it not come to this."

She told the Associated Press that the Masters should be moved to a club that allows female members.

"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."

Mr. Johnson sees the club and the annual tournament, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, as two different entities.

"Augusta National and the Masters - while happily entwined - are quite different. One is a private golf club. The other is a world-class sports event of great public interest," he said. "It is insidious to attempt to use one to alter the essence of the other. The essence of a private club is privacy."

The chairman made it clear that Augusta National would make the decision on when to invite a woman to join the club.

"There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet," Mr. Johnson said.

Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or jboyette@augustachronicle.com.