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Defiant Johnson says Masters will go on no matter what

11/12/2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Defiant as ever, Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson declared that The Masters will be played next year, no matter what, and there is no chance a woman will be a member of the golf club by then.

''We will prevail because we're right,'' the 71-year-old Johnson said.

His comments were the first on the subject since he fueled the
debate over the all-male membership at Augusta National by
criticizing Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's
Organizations for trying to coerce change.

The club has never had a female member in its 69-year history,
and Johnson didn't sound as if he was in any hurry to change that.

''We have no timetable on the woman member,'' he said in a Nov.
4 interview with The Associated Press. ''Our club has enjoyed a
camaraderie and a closeness that's served us well for so long, that
it makes it difficult for us to consider change.

''A woman may be a member of this club one day, but that is out
in the future.''

A green jacket was draped over Johnson's broad shoulders during
the hour-long interview in his office, whose walls bear a photo of
him and former chairman Clifford Roberts and an original portrait
of Bobby Jones painted by President Eisenhower.

The hint of a smile played above his square jaw as he spoke. He
hardly resembled someone who felt threatened, even at ''the point
of a bayonet.''

That's the phrase he used on July 9 in a terse, three-page
statement in response to Burk's letter urging the club to admit
women -- a phrase that has become a slogan of his resolve.

Johnson said Augusta National might some day admit a woman, but
he wouldn't be forced into it.

He was equally adamant on this day, offering the kind of
assurances usually reserved for death, taxes and whether Tiger
Woods has the game to contend for a fourth Masters title.

''There will always be a Masters,'' Johnson said.

He was unyielding in his stance that Augusta National would not
cave in to the demands of Burk or anyone else who dares to
challenge the constitutional rights of a private club to associate
with whomever it wants.

''This woman portrays us as being discriminatory and being
bigots. And we're not,'' Johnson said. ''We're a private club. And
private organizations are good. The Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts.
Junior League. Sororities. Fraternities. Are these immoral?

''See, we are in good company as a single-gender organization.''

He sees no connection between racial and gender discrimination.

''Do you know of any constitutional lawyer that's ever said they
were the same? Do you know any civil rights activists that said it
was the same? It's not relevant,'' he said. ''Nobody accepts them
as being the same.''

Burk doesn't buy Johnson's argument, and she speculated that he
spoke out because, ''He must be feeling additional pressure from
inside the club, PGA Tour sponsors or the players.''

''I had sincerely and genuinely hoped it could be settled, and I
still hope so,'' she said. ''Hopefully, this is Hootie's last
hurrah, and there still may be some pressure outside the club to
make this change. That might be the case, or he wouldn't have
called this interview to make points he has made in the past.''

Augusta National opened in 1933, the vision of Roberts, a Wall
Street investment banker, and Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur
ever.

The Masters was created in 1934 and has evolved into the most
famous of golf's four major championships, the only one played on
the same course.

Johnson, a retired banker, was 4 when he attended his first
Masters in 1935. He was invited to join Augusta National in 1968,
and was elected chairman 30 years later.

He is said to have worked behind the scenes to get the first
black admitted to the club in 1990, shortly after the all-white
membership controversy at Shoal Creek in Alabama.

Augusta National allows women to play its golf course without
restrictions. Women played more than 1,000 rounds last year, and
Johnson invited the University of South Carolina women's golf team
as his guest.

So, what's wrong with having one as a member?

''We just don't choose to do that at this time,'' he said.

Johnson said Burk's letter hasn't had any effect on the club's
decision to invite a woman to join.

Still, the chairman clearly is annoyed by Burk's campaign. He
never mentioned her by name, three times referring to her only as
''this woman'' or ''that woman.''

Asked if he had any regrets about his response to Burk -- three
sentences vs. three pages to the media -- Johnson smiled: ''I seldom
have any regrets. I don't look back much.''

Then he turned serious and added: ''I regret that she threatened
us. And I regret that she threatened our sponsors.''

Johnson dismissed the only TV sponsors of The Masters --
Citigroup, Coca-Cola and IBM -- after Burk challenged them to live
up to their own policies against sex discrimination.

That will make next year's Masters, which already gets the
highest ratings among golf tournaments, the first commercial-free
sporting event on network TV.

Can The Masters survive financially without sponsors for more
than one year?

''We could go indefinitely,'' Johnson said. ''But I don't think
we'll have to. We'll have our sponsors back. I just believe that
we're right on this issue, and that they'll be comfortable in
sponsoring The Masters Tournament.''

If some view this controversy as having the potential to mar the
crown jewel of golf, Johnson certainly doesn't.

''The majority of Americans are with us on this issue,'' he
said, leaning back in his leather chair. ''I want you to know
that.''

How can he be so sure?

''I just know it,'' Johnson said. ''I know it by the response I
get here.''

He reached for a letter and newspaper clipping on the coffee
table, a poll from the Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer Journal, that
asked readers to call in their vote on whether Augusta should admit
women. Of 624 callers, 90 percent said no.

On his desk were four files, each one bulging with letters he
said supported Augusta National and its rights as a private club.

Johnson said he has read and responded to each one.

''I don't think we've been damaged,'' he said.

The only time Johnson's voice was tinged with agitation was when
he wondered why his club should be penalized ''for presenting
something that's good for the game of golf?''

''Something that 150 million watch around the world? Something
that's a harbinger of spring? Something that is respected
worldwide? We're going to be penalized for that?''

Burk has challenged several high-profile members of Augusta
National to own up to their public stand against discrimination.

Lloyd Ward, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and one of only a
half-dozen black members at Augusta, said he would work for change
from inside the club. American Express chairman Kenneth Chenault,
another black member, also said he believed there should be female
members.

That violates a cardinal rule at Augusta. The club traditionally
speaks with one voice -- Johnson's.

''I'm not going to talk about members,'' he said, cutting off a
question about comments from executives like Ward and Chenault.
''We'll handle that internally.''

Johnson did not appear to be concerned, nor did he think the
debate would steal headlines from Woods going after a record third
straight Masters title.

Meantime, Augusta National carries on behind the tall gates that
seclude Magnolia Lane and its stately clubhouse from the rest of
the world.

Several members played in a cool drizzle on this day, some of
them taking along caddies dressed in the club's traditional white
coveralls.

Among the items for sale in the Augusta National pro shop was a
navy blue cap with ''2003 Masters'' stitched in white. Merchandise
with a message.