Master Of His Domain? Martha Burk won't be protesting at Augusta National during next week's Masters. But one way or the other, she figures in Hootie Johnson's future

April 04, 2004

Remember Hootie and Martha? This time last year the controversy
surrounding Augusta National's all-male membership was hitting a
peak. On the eve of the Masters, Jesse Jackson was making
headlines by raising the possibility of civil disobedience at the
protest organized by Martha Burk, the chairperson of the National
Council of Women's Organizations. Meanwhile the Imperial Wizard
of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was among the eclectic
group that had promised to turn out to show its support for
Hootie Johnson, Augusta National's rock-ribbed chairman.

Because the battle for Augusta National played out on the sports
page, there had to be a winner and a loser, and Burk's protest on
Masters Saturday was to be the defining moment of the fray. When
it turned out that reporters outnumbered demonstrators by two to
one, and an Elvis impersonator and drag queen stole the
spotlight, the verdict was that Hootie won and Martha lost,
decisively. A year later Johnson is still entrenched as the czar
of all-male Augusta, and a demoralized Burk has said that she
will not show her face next week at the Masters, because she's
still bitter at having been forced to hold her protest in a
grassy field out of sight of the front gates. "Why go back down
there and be stuck in a mud hole a mile away?" Burk said to The
Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February.

Johnson is also trying to move on. "What really happened last
year, I think, is that the public recognized our constitutional
rights as a private club," Johnson said in the April 2004 Golf
magazine. "And I think they're tired of the whole thing. The
golfing world is tired of it, and I know I am."

But as much as Hootie would like to make all the unpleasantness
go away, that's not going to happen. Next week's Masters will
again be sponsor-free because the home of one of the world's
premier sporting events remains too polarizing for large
corporations. By kissing off sponsorship money, Augusta National
loses between 5 and 10 million dollars annually. Johnson has said
that the club can present the Masters without sponsors
"indefinitely," and from a financial standpoint, that is true;
recent estimates have put the club's annual take from the
tournament at $25 million, generated largely through ticket and
merchandise sales. But every hour that goes by on the telecast
without a commercial is a reminder that women still can't be
members at Augusta and that Burk has had an impact. Johnson has
said that he would like to have sponsors again--the former
chairman of the executive committee at Bank of America surely
does not enjoy overseeing a corporate pariah--but any company
that signs on can expect to become a target for Burk and her
10-million-member organization.

There are other reasons to think we have merely reached a lull in
the battle, not an end of the war. A decision on Burk's lawsuit
alleging that Augusta's local government stifled her First
Amendment rights could come any day. A victory for Burk could
have her packing her protest signs and heading south. Meanwhile,
Johnson is 73 and has had a history of heart problems; his
stepping down, which will come sooner rather than later, creates
the possibility of a fissure within the club. And who knows what
the future holds? What if a certain 14-year-old girl achieves her
dream of winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship,
which would mean an automatic invitation to the Masters? Michelle
Wie's presence between the ropes would have a profound effect on
the debate.

Golf changes slowly. Many private clubs, including Augusta, were
segregated until 1990. Clearly, Burk is impatient with the
glacial pace of the game's change. As she said recently, "If I
have any regrets about the situation down there it's that I did
not let them arrest me." But Hootie has reason to be dissatisfied
too. Even though Burk will not be coming down this year, she has
not really gone away, and neither has the pressure to make his
club a little bit more like the rest of America.

Alan Shipnuck is the author of The Battle for Augusta National
(Simon & Schuster, $25).

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"In my era some guys wanted a little sip. They wouldn't get
drunk, but they wanted a little boost."
--Q&A, BUCK O'NEIL, PAGE 22

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