Johnson, Burk carry on after battles

Updated: April 7, 2005, 6:15 PM ET
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

One of the annoying things about history is that it rarely allows mulligans.

What's done is done, the deeds written with a pencil that carries no eraser. Still, it is worth wondering how differently things would have played out if, on that day nearly three years ago when he received a letter from Martha Burk, Augusta National Golf Club chairman Hootie Johnson had responded with the words he used this week when asked about the lack of female members at the home of The Masters.

Hootie Johnson
"We don't talk about club matters, period," Johnson said this week.

"Well, we've adopted a new policy," Johnson said during his annual news conference. "We don't talk about club matters, period." When it was noted that in 2002 he replied to the letter authored by Burk for the National Council of Women's Organizations by saying the club would never admit women "at the point of a bayonet," he repeated: "I said we have a new policy. We don't talk about club matters, period."

Truth be told, this "new policy" is actually the old policy, the longtime policy of privacy at Augusta National, curiously abandoned by Johnson in his public response to Burk in 2002. The words used this week to dismiss questions about the club's membership were punctuated by the presence of 67 green-jacketed members in a horseshoe of support around the perimeter of the Masters interview room. Any doubt that Johnson had survived the Burk situation stronger than ever was removed by the impressive turnout of members. Any doubt that women would be admitted to the club not as a result of pressure but only when the club was good and ready was removed by the firmness with which Johnson swatted away questions about the issue.

After two years without sponsors -- released from their contractual obligations by Augusta National to spare them possible embarrassment and potential protests -- commercial supporters of The Masters returned this year while Martha Burk did not. Despite a reversal of a court order keeping protesters away from the main gate to the club, Burk did not show up to stage a photo op in front of the "Members Only" sign on Washington Road. Instead, she was in Washington, D.C., where on Thursday the NCWO revealed new protests aimed at the three main sponsors of The Masters.

"Today, the coalition of more than 200 national women's organizations representing over 10 million women, sent letters to IBM, SBC Communications and Exxon Mobil requesting employment data on hiring, pay and promotion of women in their companies," Burk said Thursday in Washington. " All of these corporations have policies against underwriting discrimination, and all are in violation of those policies. It is incumbent on them to provide data proving that they in fact do not discriminate against women in their workplaces."

At the same time, Burk said a class-action complaint alleging sex discrimination was served on Citigroup's Smith Barney brokerage firm. Citigroup, the nation's largest financial institution, is a former sponsor of The Masters. The federal lawsuit was brought by four woman plaintiffs who charge widespread sex discrimination at Smith Barney with respect to account distribution and compensation. Burk, it seems, was back operating on familiar turf.

"Not only do I have no interest in going anywhere near Augusta National," Burk told GolfDigest.com, "but I also have better things to do. We are taking this fight into the boardrooms of companies that make money off of women and then give that money to a club that discriminates against women."

In a strange expression of an internal harmony to the ways of the world, both Johnson and Burk have gone back to what they do best. For Johnson, that is protecting the privacy of his membership while running one of the best sporting events anywhere and maintaining the premier golf course in the United States. For Burk, it is political agitation aimed at equality for women. Johnson got out of his element when he fell into a public war of words with Burk. And Burk went astray when her protest near Augusta National in 2003 got off message and collapsed into a carnival peopled by Elvis impersonators, Ku Klux Klan members and precious few supporters. Burk, it seems, realizes now that her battle is best fought her way -- in Washington and in the courts -- while Johnson has decided to engage in the clash his way: with silence.

While there is an inevitability to the eventual admission of women to Augusta National -- its membership policy has evolved over the years to become less exclusionary -- there are two things that seem certain: It won't happen while Hootie is chairman, and it won't happen when Burk is president of the NCWO. While Johnson is no longer addressing the matter publicly, privately those close to the club say the admission of women will not happen when he is chairman, not because he opposes it but rather because he feels strongly that any change should reflect the will of the membership and not be in response to pressure from a special interest group.

Burk's term as president of the NCWO, meanwhile, is up in November 2006. "I'll not seek another term," she told GolfDigest.com. Sources close to Burk said that she might leave before her term is up and that she had been considering retirement before the Augusta National issue came up. "But once that started," a source said, "she couldn't step aside and have it appear that Hootie forced her out."

Among the many ironies in all of this is not only that Johnson will outlast Burk but also that both will be gone before women are admitted to Augusta National. The other irony is that if Johnson and Burk ever sat down and had a drink and a few words together, they would likely find out there is more that binds them together than keeps them apart. Both are Southerners who have fought the good fight against discrimination – Johnson helping integrate the state university system in South Carolina and Burk in the battle for equal rights for women.

There is, however, a monumental wall between the two. Burk sees every corner of the nation as a public place in which the laws of the land should apply. Johnson believes in the right of a private club to live by its own laws. In that, they share a fierce dedication to freedom.

And perhaps that is the greatest irony of all in this situation.

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Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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