Sunday, April 6

A fight between 2 tenacious pit bulls



AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Hootie Johnson and Martha Burk are a lot alike, hard as that is to believe.

They are tenacious about their causes, steadfast in their beliefs and convinced they've claimed the moral high ground on the issue of female members at Augusta National Golf Club.

Of course, that's where their paths veer off sharply.

Johnson, chairman of The Masters tournament and the club, is the staunch defender of Augusta's all-men membership, saying that is the prerogative of a private club.

Not so, says Burk, head of National Council of Women's Organizations. She believes Johnson is stuck in a gender time warp.

After months of verbal haggling, angry letters and attempts to sway others to their sides, the dispute ''comes home,'' so to speak.

The tournament starts Thursday, with Tiger Woods going for his third straight green jacket. And TV viewers will see more of it than ever before, thanks to the dispute.

Johnson cut loose corporate backers to shield them, he said, from possible backlash, so The Masters is commercial free. One of the lines Johnson drew in the sand.

Burk and her supporters plan to protest on Saturday, during the third round. They won't be allowed to march in front of the main gates as requested; instead, they'll be kept to a tract about a half mile away unless a Burk lawsuit is successful.

In Burk's eyes, she's already won.

''There is a turning point that will not change, regardless of when Augusta changes its policy,'' she said. ''It is a place that corporate America will not want to go near, and that's appropriate.''

Johnson sees the dispute much differently.

''You know, some of the media tries to portray us -- or this woman portrays us -- as being discriminatory, and being bigots. And we're not,'' he said last year. ''We're a private club. We will prevail because we're right.''

Many of Johnson's friends and colleagues are surprised he's taken such a high-profile stand on such a contentious issue. They've always known him to be a backroom operator, a genteel banker who would prefer to solve problems quietly, without a fuss.

During the civil rights movement, Johnson remained largely under the radar while chipping away at discrimination in his native South Carolina. He helped get blacks elected to the state legislature. He promoted blacks in the corporate boardroom. He ran a committee to desegregate the state's colleges.

''He had the reputation of being progressive,'' said I.S. Leevy Johnson, one of three blacks elected to the legislature in 1970 with Hootie Johnson's backing. ''He was diplomatic in his opinions. He had a general concern for the feelings of others. And he was a very strong-willed person. That's characteristic of leaders.''

His strong-willed side came to the forefront when Burk demanded that the club initiate a female member. He fired back with an angry statement, saying Augusta National would not admit women ''at the point of a bayonet.''

A few weeks ago, Georgia's conservative governor, Sonny Perdue, raised Johnson's ire by suggesting -- almost in passing -- that everyone would like to see the club admit women at some point. Johnson wasted no time answering with a stinging letter.

''For the governor of our state to suggest that we should capitulate to special interest groups when the Constitution is on our side and we have done nothing wrong is a bit surprising and very disappointing,'' he wrote.

While Johnson appears increasingly thin-skinned, some say Burk has gone too far by linking the membership dispute to the war in Iraq.

''It's appalling that the women who are willing to lay down their lives for democratic ideals should be shut out of this club,'' she said recently.

Burk later said she was merely trying to compare women returning from this war to blacks who endured continued segregation after fighting for their country in World War II.

While detractors portray Burk as a media hound who keeps reporters' phone numbers on her speed dial, she says that even she is surprised at the amount of attention her Augusta campaign has generated.

''I had no idea that golf was a separate religion, or as my son puts it, 'Augusta is the Westminster Abbey of golf,''' she said.

Burk points to her other causes: abortion rights, lobbying for female aid on Capitol Hill, taking part in a United Nations' program on family planning.

''All that has gone unreported,'' she said. ''I'd kill for this kind of attention, just to get that other stuff mentioned.''

Though some might characterize his stance on female members as stubborn, Johnson has shown plenty of flexibility when it came to tinkering with the club's signature event. Since taking over in 1998, he's overseen more changes than the previous three chairmen combined.

The qualifying criteria changed, television coverage expanded and the course underwent its biggest renovation since the club opened in 1933.

Tiger Woods knows firsthand that Johnson will listen to suggestions.

Woods and Mark O'Meara recently played a practice round at Augusta and this is what Woods said afterward:

''I mentioned to (Johnson) that on 18, there was a tree on the right side of the fairway, one limb that I thought was unfair. Mark-O hit it out there 280 yards, which is good for him, and he had no shot. I mentioned that to Hootie and he said, 'I'll go take a look at it.'

''The next day, the limb was gone. So he does listen.''

Johnson also has gone back and forth on the club's policy of allowing former champions to play in The Masters as long as they like -- even when they are barely capable of getting around the course.

First, Johnson drew the ire of three aging former champions by asking them not to play. Then he set up a written policy that cut off playing privileges for everyone at age 65. Then he backtracked again in recent days, welcoming back all former champs as long as they feel competitive.

Augusta National avoided that sort of public mea culpa when the issue of racially exclusive clubs came to the forefront. The club didn't admit its first black member until 1990, but it moved quickly after the dispute at Shoal Creek made white members-only clubs a potential target for protests.

When it came to women, Johnson chose a different tack.

''Shoal Creek has got nothing to do with this. Nothing,'' he said last year. ''Racial discrimination and gender are two different things. Do you know of any Constitutional lawyer that's ever said they were the same? Do you know any civil rights activists that said it was the same? Do you? It's not relevant.''

To Burk, it is.

Some day, she says, there will be a woman wearing a green jacket.

It's just a matter of time.

''I don't know why the club just doesn't take the high road and announce a change in policy on a reasonable timetable,'' Burk said. ''The club cannot see the inevitable. Instead, they have put the world of golf, us, their members, through a ringer.''






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