Wednesday, April 9

Hootie stands firm on controversy



AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They arrived early, filling the back rows and standing against the wall. Hootie Johnson was doing the talking, and the aging men wearing their prized green jackets were there in a show of silent support.

Hootie Johnson
Hootie Johnson addresses the media in the most anxiously awaited Masters news conference in history (note the more than 60 club members gathered at the far wall).

Mostly graying or balding, they shuffled in solemnly on the eve of The Masters to back the club's stand on women members.

''If I drop dead this second, our position will not change on this issue,'' the 72-year-old Johnson said. ''It's not my issue alone.''

More than 60 members who agree with Johnson made that clear Wednesday, helping pack a room where Johnson gave his annual state-of-The-Masters press conference.

They did not speak for the club -- at Augusta National that is Johnson's job. But their numbers alone spoke of unity among the 300 or so members on the issue.

They listened as Johnson first said he wouldn't discuss the issue, then did just that. And they nodded in agreement as Johnson vowed that the membership was fully behind him.

''There may well come a time when we include women as members of our club and that remains true,'' Johnson said. ''However, I want to emphasize that we have no timetable and our membership is very comfortable with our present status.''

That won't change, Johnson vowed, no matter how many protests by women's rights groups. It won't change no matter how much pressure is applied by outside interests.

Even Tiger Woods, he said, can't dictate what happens inside the club.

''I won't tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn't tell us how to run our private club,'' Johnson said.

Johnson's statements and the presence of so many club members in his support dismayed Martha Burk, the women's rights advocate who will lead protests Saturday outside the course.

Burk said Johnson's stance appears to have hardened even more than at any time during the 10-month-long dispute.

''Perhaps they want the club to devolve back to the private southern backwater club it claims to be,'' Burk said.

Usually, only a smattering of members attend Johnson's press conferences, where he normally fields questions about the speed of greens or the changes in the course. On this day, it seemed anyone who had access to a green jacket was there.

The older ones sat, while the younger members turned the back wall of a cramped room into a sea of Masters green.

''I thought everybody under 70 was supposed to stand,'' one member joked to another.

They listened for 22 minutes as Johnson made his way through 34 questions -- 26 of them dealing with the issue of women members.

He first tried to deflect questions about the issue by making an opening statement and saying he had nothing further to add.

Asked why, he grew testy.

''I just told you if you have a question I'll answer it, but don't lecture to me,'' he told one reporter.

Johnson then answered most of the questions, even one from a reporter who wondered if he had thought of the late Masters co-founder Clifford Roberts in preparing the club's position on the issue.

''I haven't had any conversations with him lately,'' Johnson said, drawing laughter from the members.

Johnson said the controversy hasn't hurt The Masters, the first major championship of the year and a tournament revered by players and fans.

''It's been maligned, but it hasn't been damaged,'' Johnson said. ''I think The Masters will be a great sporting event.''

This year's Masters will be televised commercial-free by CBS and USA Network and, when asked how long that could continue, Johnson said, ''Indefinitely.''

Johnson released sponsors from this year's broadcast so they wouldn't be targeted for boycotts over the membership issue.

Johnson left open the tantalizing possibility that there could be a woman player in The Masters before there is a woman member at Augusta National.

Long-hitting teen-age sensation Michelle Wie has made it her goal to win the U.S. Public Links and get an invitation, which Johnson said would be offered.

''If we have one qualify we'll sure send her an invitation,'' Johnson said.

In the end, Johnson said, he believes men and women like to have their own separate events.

''Men like to get together with men every now and then and women like to get together with women every now and then,'' Johnson said. ''That's a simple fact of life in America.''

That was enough for the green jacketed members, who made their way out amid murmurs of approval.

Their chairman had made his point, and they had made theirs.

''That was good,'' one said to another.






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