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Inside gates, expect business as usual

4/7/2003

A few weeks ago, Tiger Woods provided the predominant perspective from inside the ropes about the exclusion of women from the membership of Augusta National Golf Club.

"It would be great if it all would go away and we could play a golf tournament again," Woods said. "That's not what is going to happen."

Professional golfers owe their double-comma incomes to corporate largesse. They will get out in front of a social issue, especially one that roils the establishment, about the time that President Bush invites Jacques Chirac to his Crawford, Tex., ranch.

"It's going to take a lot of determination and a lot of 'No comment,' to get through the week," Davis Love III said.

Writer Frank Deford has referred to Augusta National as the American Singapore because of the club's ability to establish a well-ordered society that brooks no discord. The current controversy began only when club chairman Hootie Johnson opened the door to it through his vitriolic response to a letter from activist Martha Burk.

Though Burk's group, the National Council of Women's Organizations, plans to protest on Saturday, Johnson did re-close the door to the outside world. There are no corporate sponsors. There are no television ads. Burk's desire to protest at the gates of Augusta National ignores the hard reality of Masters traffic. Washington Road, with its multitude of chain restaurants and strip centers, is a clogged artery during normal weeks. During The Masters, it's a parking lot.

It's so busy that Augusta native Charles Howell III recently revealed that as a teenager, he wasn't allowed to drive on Washington Road. Asked about the protesters' wish to move directly in front of the gates of Augusta National, Howell said jokingly, "If they are in the road, they'll get run over."

The protest, pending an appeal by Burk, will take place a half-mile from the club. The Masters remains the toughest ticket in sports, even for social issues. That's why the golfers believe the controversy will be neither seen nor heard on the grounds of the club.

"Inside the gates, it will still be The Masters," Howell said. "Unless you get a kamikaze protestor running across the fairway, I think it's still a golf tournament."

When badges are rarer than a Tiger triple-bogey, you have to think that any protester likely will have the good sense to take off his or her badge before taking that fairway sprint. Augusta National has a policy of responding to rules violations by rescinding the privilege of purchasing the badge.

When the number of members who have resigned in protest can be counted on the fingers of one golf glove, the idea that someone might give up their Masters badge in protest sounds like wishful thinking by those who want change. Scott Hoch, one of the few PGA Tour golfers who will provide an unvarnished opinion about most anything, believes this issue is big on style and lacking in substance.

"What's the big deal about letting one, most likely one, rich white lady into a club?" Hoch asked. "How is that going to change the landscape of America? There are a lot of issues out there that would help women a lot more than this issue."

Substantive or not, the tournament will proceed with little note of the protest, save for the occasional kamikaze.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.