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One solution: green jacket for Martha

4/9/2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- You could cut the tension with a fairway mower. There was Hootie Johnson -- The Chairman, as he is referred to here by the members at Augusta National -- sitting at room's front, his signature green jacket worn just so. There was a certain polite Southern defiance to his manner, the almost-perceptible feeling that at any moment he could leap from the dais and deliver a forearm shiver, just like he did decades ago as a fullback at South Carolina, to whoever offended him.

Then came the question, the one that has dogged Johnson and his beloved Masters tournament for nearly a year. The room crackled with apprehension as the reporter confronted Johnson.

''Is there any consideration,'' said the writer, ''to lift, clean and place for the tournament?''

Johnson squinted through his glasses. ''Well, now we know why we are here,'' he said.

Will Nicholson, chairman of the competition committee, quickly interceded.

''We're going to play the ball down,'' he said solemnly.

And there you have it, controversy averted. Crisis solved. Now back to those pesky secondary issues, such as the ongoing gender membership debate, and the likelihood of Tiger What's-his-name going for the first-ever Masters threepeat.

With all due respect to Wednesday's annual press conference with Johnson, this wasn't exactly a CentCom briefing in Qatar. This was about double-cutting the greens, about soggy fairways and, of course, about Johnson's catfight with Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

Burk wants Johnson to deep-six the club's exclusionary policies as it relates to women members or, more correctly, the absence of such members at Augusta National. Johnson wants Burk to burn in God's fiery hell. The whole thing continues to hang over The Masters like those same storm clouds that have the azaleas doing the backstroke this week.

I'll admit it, I've got a spot for this place as soft as a puppy's belly. I get goose bumps peering down Magnolia Lane. I genuflect at Amen Corner. I think someone ought to designate No. 16 a national landmark.

The egg salad sandwiches taste like something served at a five-star restaurant. You don't need to take out an adjustable-rate mortgage to buy a beer and dog. And, geez, if there was any more history here you'd need Shelby Foote to document it.

And yet, there was a sadness and silliness about Wednesday's Hootie-thon. About 50 Augusta National members stood at the back of the packed room as Johnson began the press conference. The Thin Green Line, I guess. The members' message was obvious: In Hootie we trust.

At times there was a Nixonian quality to Johnson. ''I am not a crook'' morphed into, ''I am not a bigot.'' He doesn't have anything against women -- just as long as they don't have a permanent locker at his club.

''. . . I do have a reputation for fighting against discrimination,'' he said. ''And I have a good record and I'm proud of it. But our private club does not discriminate. Single gender is an important fabric on the American scene. There are thousands and thousands all across America. Both genders. Health clubs, sewing circles, Junior League, Shriners, and we should not and we're not discriminating. And we resent it very much when that accusation is made against us.''

Problem is, Jim Nantz and the rest of the CBS bunch aren't here to cover hem stitching. The Masters is beamed across the world. When Ernie Els was a kid in South Africa he used to sneak down to the family TV room and watch the thing in the wee hours. You can't do that for the Buick Open ... or the Shriners.

Johnson opened the media opportunity by reading a statement that attempted to deflect all future questions about the membership issue. This was like trying to convince Tiger Woods to wear purple plaid on Sundays.

''Just because we host a golf tournament, because some of our members are well known, should not cause us to us to be viewed differently,'' he said. ''I have also stated that there may well come a time when we include women as members of our club, and that remains true. However, I want to emphasize that we have no timetable and our membership is very comfortable with our present status.''

Just to make sure there was no confusion about this Johnson ended the press conference with this little zinger.

''If I drop dead right now our position will not change on this issue,'' he said. ''It's not my issue alone.''

Translation: ''See the green muscle? They've got my back.''

If I'm Johnson I do two things: Find the nearest Lenscrafter and get a more flattering pair of specs. And then I offer membership to a woman yesterday.

There were rumors, even a recently denied report, that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor would receive an invitation to join Augusta National. That's fine, but I just don't see how she can get through the ball wearing that big black robe.

Other future possibilities include LPGA legend Nancy Lopez or perhaps even Annika Sorenstam. Fine candidates all.

But there is only one obvious choice.

Martha Burk.

I don't know if she even plays golf, but she plays politics. By offering Burk a green coat you call her bluff, you put a sock in the protesters' mouths, you get an honorary membership into the NCWO.

Will it happen? Sure it will, just after Hootie admits they bikini wax the greens here.

But it's nice to dream, isn't it?

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.