Johnson: Public wants us 'to talk about golf'
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Like an impenetrable goalie on top of his game, Hootie Johnson kept stonewalling the shots. Tired of talking about women, the chairman of Augusta National believes it's time for his club and the Masters to move on.
"I really think the American public is ready for us to talk about golf," Johnson said Wednesday, the eve of the opening round.
Last year at his "State of the Masters" news conference, Johnson was patient with the persistent questioning about Martha Burk and her efforts to call out Augusta National for not having any female members.
At one point, he proclaimed, "If I die right now, our position will not change."
This year, Johnson was nowhere near as colorful. He fielded five questions on the issue, and dispatched each with a calculated economy of words.
Did he feel like he'd won the public-relations battle with Burk, the head of the National Council of Women's Organizations? "I don't feel like we won anything. I feel it's over. Well, it'll never be over, but I don't think we won anything."
Is Augusta National any closer to admitting a female member? "We are a private club and I'm not going to talk about our club matters."
What about Burk's new initiative, targeting corporations associated with members of Augusta National? "I really think you ought to talk to Ms. Burk about that."
What impact did Burk's campaign have on the tournament and the club? "I leave that up to you to judge."
Johnson is apparently so solid with his stance that he said the days of televising the tournament without commercials will be over soon. When Burk put pressure on TV sponsors to pull their ads before last year's tournament, Johnson responded by saying there would be no commercials. This will be the second straight year under that arrangement.
"We don't have any firm plans on sponsors in the future, but I do expect we'll have them in time," he said.
The protests Burk planned on the Saturday of the tournament last year largely fizzled, drawing more reporters than participants. She blamed it on being relegated by local ordinances to an open field, well away from the entrance to the course at the intersection of Washington Road and Magnolia Lane.
Speaking from her office in Washington, she insisted her mission is not over.
"I'm very happy with where we are," she said. "We're doing now exactly what we said we were going to do last year after the tournament. We're turning our attention to corporate involvement, and doing it successfully. What's happening on the golf course is irrelevant to the direction we're taking."
Indeed, on the golf course, this seems like a dead issue.
"If it was as big a deal as she made it out to be, we'd still be talking about it," Charles Howell III said recently.
Earlier this week, Burk announced she was investigating eight Wall Street companies whose top executives are members of Augusta National. She also hired Washington lawyer Cyrus Mehri, whose firm served as counsel in two of the largest race discrimination cases in history.
"What I think is going on there is a whole lot of denial," Burk said. "Hootie and, I suppose, some of his members are trying to pretend things are back to normal."
Johnson was more receptive to a question about whether 14-year-old Michelle Wie might someday be allowed to play in the tournament.
"We'd be pleased to have Michelle play in the Masters tournament if she qualifies," he said.
The most likely avenue would be for her to win the men's U.S. Amateur Public Links, or to reach the finals of the men's U.S. Amateur.
Johnson also announced changes to the playoff holes, but said the Masters' sudden-death format would remain.
In the past, the playoff started on No. 10 and continued in order through the back nine.
None of the six playoffs -- including the one last year between Mike Weir and Len Mattiace -- went beyond the 11th hole. This year, a playoff would begin on No. 18, proceed to No. 10 and rotate between those two holes until a winner was decided.
Johnson said the change was a concession to time constraints: Daylight is waning when the tournament draws to a close, and the 18th green draws more sunshine on a hill than the 10th does in a valley.
The change also was made in deference to the many fans who get to the course as early as 7 a.m. to position themselves to watch the finish on No. 18, only to have it end elsewhere under the old format.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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