Originally created 09/08/02

Augusta National controversy takes spotlight



It started with one little newspaper article that caught the eye of one influential woman. It has mushroomed into a full-scale media frenzy.

The hot-button sports issue from coast to coast is the lack of female members at Augusta National Golf Club. The worst-kept secret in sports has suddenly become a cause celebre in a battle between private and equal rights.

People magazine, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and CNN all have sent reporters recently to scout the landscape in Augusta. The topic has been bandied about on national radio, television talk shows and Internet chat rooms. Columnists from every major paper have weighed in on both sides of the fence that separates Augusta National from Washington Road and the broader world beyond.

And it's only the beginning. Hootie Johnson and Augusta National vs. Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations will remain a subject of heated debate from now until the day the club opens its doors to a female member. It's only started to percolate.

How did it come to this? Why is this suddenly such an issue?

"So little happens of significance in golf that the smallest ripple on the pond causes concentric circles that spread across the ocean," said Steve Elling, golf writer for the Orlando Sentinel. "The reason it's such a delicious issue is that neither side is right."

Several columnists had written about the lack of female membership at Augusta National for years without raising any public outcry. But when Burk read one such article in USA Today this year, she and her organization decided to make it an issue.

Her July letter to Masters Tournament chairman Hootie Johnson drew a shockingly defiant public response. The issue escalated from there, with the club last week releasing its sponsors to insulate them from conventional attacks.

Burk says she will take her cause to CBS, the network that televises the Masters, as well as to the companies of club members and to the players who participate in the major event. The only satisfactory options in Burk's mind seem to be either the dissolution of the Masters or the admission of a woman member.

"The issue isn't that it's an all-male club but that it's an all-male club that allows the public inside once a year," said Len Shapiro, golf writer for the Washington Post. "Augusta National is the Masters. I don't think you can separate the two."

On the surface, there has been very little public support for Burk's cause. The PGA Tour, Tiger Woods, the former sponsors and CBS all have publicly stood behind the club's private rights, citing the separation of the club and the Masters Tournament. Judging from e-mails, online polls and casual conversation, a large portion of the public either shares that sentiment or doesn't seem to care.

Many critics of Augusta National, however, consider this issue to be no different than that of Shoal Creek, the 1990 PGA Championship site whose discriminatory policies based on race forced the PGA Tour to establish a policy to not play tournaments at clubs with exclusionary policies.

It was the Shoal Creek incident that prompted Augusta National to invite its first black member in 1990.

"If you substitute female for African-American, we're not talking about two different issues here," Shapiro said. "Discrimination is discrimination."

What Augusta National has become is a symbol of inequality. That any woman invited for membership is likely to be just another wealthy corporate leader who would in no way change the elite status of the club doesn't matter. She would be a representative of all women struggling for equal consideration.

"This country is based on a lot of symbols," Shapiro said. "Rosa Parks was a symbol. Jackie Robinson was a symbol. Symbols go a long way to changing history. Symbols are important."

That's why Augusta National is under a media siege. Where this issue goes from here is up to the two entrenched sides. Johnson and the club have dug in for a fight; Burk and her organization don't seem deterred by any obstacles.

"I hope cooler heads prevail," Shapiro said. "It's up to Hootie and the club. They don't want this to be an issue every year. They'd be wise to make peace."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.