Martha Burk began her first Masters week with a 4:30 a.m.
wake-up call she didn't want. This was last Thursday, when she
was still at home in Washington, D.C. The telephone call was
from a radio station looking for an interview. "Are you crazy?"
Burk, the unpaid chair of the National Council of Women's
Organizations, asked the caller. Who would call in the middle of
the night like that? She already had a media event scheduled for
the day, a 1:30 p.m. press conference at the Martin Luther King
Jr. Center in Atlanta, a step in her march to Augusta and its
famous all-male golf club.
This is an article from the April 21, 2003 issue
A few hours later she was on her way to the airport in a cab with
her husband, retired American University professor Ralph
Estes--like Burk, a displaced Texan and a bluegrass music fan.
The conversation turned to Tony Kornheiser's Washington Post
column of the previous day, headlined FOR MARTHA, NOBODY GIVES A
HOOTIE. The story described Burk's effort to boost salaries for
players in the WNBA, "a league," Kornheiser wrote, "she knows
nothing about." Burk took exception to that assessment and
wondered why Kornheiser hadn't called her. The cabbie interrupted
her. "If you don't mind me butting in on your conversation," he
said, "I think Kornheiser knows nothing about sports." Oh, did
Burk get a kick out of that.
The Thursday papers ran stories about Hootie Johnson's Wednesday
press conference at Augusta National. Many of the questions posed
to Johnson were about the club's male-only policy. Many of the
questions invoked Martha Burk. None of the answers did. The club
chairman waltzed slowly around the questions but closed the
session with a doozy: "I do want to make one point. If I drop
dead right now, our position will not change on this issue. It's
not my issue alone." Scores of media outlets used that bite of
sound, and Burk loved it. In her mind Johnson was admitting that
the membership was comfortable with the club's policy. She could
use that. Every time Johnson opens his mouth, Burk believes, he
gives her cause a present.
In Atlanta on a cold and rainy Thursday afternoon, Burk was
introduced to the dozens of reporters and camerapeople on hand by
Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference. In Augusta, 130 miles away, first-round
play had been postponed due to torrential rain, proving, Burk
said, that God knew about Augusta National's exclusionary policy
and that "she doesn't like it." A 61-year-old grandmother, Burk
looked terrific in black tasseled loafers, a navy silk suit with
tapered pants, a lime-green blouse and off-red lipstick. It
happened that a natty Vogue writer had hung out with Burk during
Masters week for a story, but she needed no fashion tips from
him. Inside the King Center schoolchildren saw footage of Martin
Luther King Jr.'s historic march from Selma and heard him preach
the searing words, "We as a people will get to the promised land!"
Dr. Burk--she has a Ph.D. in psychology--is a capable public
speaker. She repeatedly referred to the golf club not simply as
"Augusta," as most golfers do, but as "Augusta National
Incorporated," driving her point home to the assembled media that
the club is "registered as a for-profit corporation." As Burk
spoke, her husband watched from a distance and worried. "She
should be wearing a coat," he said. The temperature was in the
mid-40s. Estes was more concerned that the name of her Augusta
hotel would get out and that some deranged person would do her
harm. At one point he took a cellphone call regarding his search
for a bodyguard for his wife at the rally planned for Saturday in
Augusta. Burk was more worried that the Reverend Jesse Jackson
would be there. She wanted to portray the Augusta membership
issue as a question of discrimination against women, being fought
by a coalition of women's groups. She was concerned that if
Jackson turned up, he'd be the story.
About five hours later Burk, Estes and the small NCWO entourage
were checking in to the new Super 8 motel on the outskirts of
Augusta. Four rooms for three nights and two rooms for two
nights, at $250 per room per night, prepaid by check, a small
fortune for Burk's organization, which has only two paid
staffers. In the lobby she met another Super 8 guest, Jeff
Julian, the former Tour player who suffers from Lou Gehrig's
disease. Two big men with cigars in their mouths and
American-flag pins on the lapels of their souvenir Augusta
National golf shirts passed her in the hallway. Cordial hellos
were exchanged all the way around. Burk was getting close to the
heart of golf.
On Friday, Burk was holed up in an old house in the stately Hill
section of Augusta. Jack Batson, an Augusta lawyer and ACLU
member, had made his home available to Burk and her people for
the day so that she would have a place to do her interviews. One
of the NCWO staffers, a young woman named Rebecca Menso, who has
a delicate silver ring pierced through her left nostril, had
filled out a sheet of paper that divided the workday into 16
half-hour sessions, each spoken for by a different news
organization: ABC News, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia
Inquirer, the Golf Channel and CBC Radio Canada, among others.
Christine Brennan, a USA Today columnist, came in. She and Burk
had never met. When they did, they seemed like long-lost cousins.
"Do you realize what today is?" Brennan asked Burk.
"What is it?"
"It was a year ago today the column ran," Brennan said, referring
to her story of last April in which she criticized Augusta's
all-male membership policy. Reading that piece prompted Burk to
write a private letter to Johnson, who responded last July with
the three-page press release in which he said the club would not
be forced "at the point of a bayonet" to add a female member. The
media have been lunching on the story ever since. The New York
Times nominated its coverage of the saga for a Pulitzer Prize.
Hootie Johnson, in a demonstration of his fine manners, called on
Brennan, by name, for the first question at his Wednesday press
While Brennan and Burk talked, Jack Batson's son William, a
sophomore at Augusta's Richmond Academy, was out on Washington
Road, the main thoroughfare to the course, selling anti-Burk
T-shirts. The front of the shirt read IF MARTHA HAD BALLS.... The
back read SHE COULD JOIN THE CLUB! Jack Batson is the Atticus
Finch of modern Augusta and William shares his father's liberal
bent, but easy money is easy money, and the dark-haired kid and
his friends were clearing $5 on every sale. In less than an hour
on Friday afternoon they sold 36 shirts at $20 each, earning
themselves $180. News photographers, naturally, took pictures.
The circus had come to town.
Then came Saturday, rally day, a beautiful day for a protest.
Blocked by city officials and the courts from demonstrating near
Augusta National's main entrance, Burk and the NCWO were assigned
a grassy, five-acre site a half mile down Washington Road. A bus
from Atlanta brought about 30 protesters, and there might have
been another 60 assembled, which meant that the ratio of media to
marchers was about one to one. "Today we protest with placards,"
Burk said over a loudspeaker from a small podium. "Tomorrow women
will be protesting with their pocketbooks!" Reporters scribbled.
All you had to do to get a TV mike in your face was to dress like
Elvis or wear a tuxedo and carry a sign reading FORMAL PROTEST or
do anything out of the ordinary. A woman with snowy-white hair
held up a sign that read HOOTIE PATOOTIE, SHAME ON YOUTIE! She
had attached her placard to an old Wilson Blue Ridge driver, with
a steel shaft and leather grip and laminated wooden head. The
woman, Lee De Cesare, married for 48 years to the Republican
mayor of Madeira Beach, Fla., was a quote machine: "My husband
said to me, 'You're going to ruin the tournament,' and I said,
'That's what we're trying to do!'"
The truth is that the tournament never paid much attention to the
protest, and the protesters didn't pay much attention to the
tournament. Burk said repeatedly last week that she isn't
interested in golf. She knows the world is not going to change if
Augusta National admits a few affluent women. But the club is,
she says, a symbol of societal constraint. More to the point, its
men-only policy gives her a platform to talk about the other
women's issues important to her: Title IX, maternity leave, scads
of others. But it is Augusta's membership and Martha versus
Hootie that the press can most easily get its arms around. She'll
ride it for as long as she can. Along the way, she has become one
of the best-known feminists in the country. Particularly in golf
Before leaving the rally site on Saturday, Burk sat in the back
seat of a Chevy Suburban, signed a few autographs and gave a few
follow-up interviews to reporters leaning toward her vehicle. Her
bodyguard-for-a-day, a bowling ball of a man in a checkered suit,
kept everything orderly. Then she drove off, just as they do in
the movies, leaving Augusta behind. Her first Masters week had
come and gone, and she had never seen a single shot.
stressing the point that the club is a for-profit corporation.
be protesting with their pocketbooks."
dress like Elvis or do anything out of the ordinary.