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Some corporations steering clear of Masters parties

11/23/2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Terry Wick couldn't ask for a better place to cater to VIP golf fans than The Clubhouse, a banquet hall he manages that's across the street from the main entrance to Augusta National Golf Club.

For the Masters tournament in April, big companies throw private parties and pay in the five figures for Wick's red-carpet treatment. They get duck with orange brandy sauce on the menu, leather couches facing three TVs in one dining room, and a putting
green in the parking lot.

But with the Masters about five months away, Wick's already
worried. He received an e-mail from a major telecommunications
company canceling its plans. The message said Augusta National,
under fire for its all-male membership, is too controversial for
wining and dining clients.

''It's a pretty big hit. That's about $60,000 we'll lose. They
were probably our second-biggest client,'' Wick said. ''There could
easily be repercussions across the board for everybody.''

As a sort of Mardi Gras for the country-club crowd, Masters week
in Augusta is known for corporate largesse. Companies rent clusters
of private homes for executives and guests, throw elaborate catered
parties and plaster their logos on rented limousines.

But some Augustans, such as Wick, say the battle between Augusta
National and the National Council of Women's Organizations is
taking a bite out of the lucrative business they count on from
Magnolia Lane.

Hootie Johnson, chairman of the private golf club, has refused
demands from the women's council to admit a female member by the
2003 Masters. With the Rev. Jesse Jackson threatening protests and
Tiger Woods on the defensive, some companies are deciding to duck
the controversy by staying away.

Diane Starr, president of Augusta rental agency Corporate
Quarters, said ''two or three'' corporate clients have canceled,
citing budget cuts. She hopes bookings will bounce back in January,
as they did last year to avert a Masters meltdown after Sept. 11.

''I thought that could be the worst thing to ever happen,'' said
Starr, who declined to identify clients. ''Then you realize the
women's organizations could do just as much damage.''

Augusta's official business boosters scoff at the notion of an
economic Masters disaster. Since the tournament began in 1934,
Masters tickets have become among the most coveted in sports. For
every person declining an invitation, scores more wait to snatch it
up.

''If a corporation decided not to come to Augusta for the
tournament, the tickets will not go unused,'' said Barry White,
director of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. ''There's
enough demand. People will come. People will be spending money in
Augusta.''

But there's a big difference between the golf enthusiasts who
pack Augusta's hotels and restaurants simply to attend the
tournament, and corporate ticket holders who put on major
productions.

They bring in the big bucks. An estimated 2,000 homeowners rent
their houses, counting on hefty fees for mortgage payments or home
improvements. College students and teachers whose spring breaks
coincide with The Masters take temporary jobs as waiters and maids
for extra cash.

''Don't get me wrong, you don't laugh at any of the money that
comes in,'' said Aimee Murphy, an image consultant who worked as a
house maid during the past four Masters. ''But the big money comes
from those who are renting the houses, doing the catering and
having the functions.''

Wick, who normally hires 100 extra hands, said he's received 40
applications from displaced tournament temps whose regular gigs
have been canceled.

One of them was Murphy, who says the homeowners who previously
hired her called last week to say their renters won't be returning.

Which companies aren't coming? It's hard to say. Augusta
businesses zealously guard the identity of their Masters clients.
And no companies have publicly stated they're sitting out the
tournament.

But Augusta National has dropped its three sponsors -- Coca-Cola,
Citigroup and IBM -- to shield its image. American Express
chairman Kenneth Chenault, an Augusta National member, has said he
thinks there should be female members.

And there are signs some companies will still attend but are
cutting back spending because of the shaky economy. CBS passed on
renting the house where Murphy worked as maid, though the network
still plans to televise The Masters. Wick said a large tobacco
company has scaled back its rentals to three houses rather than
seven.

''There's a lot of time between now and The Masters for people
to change their minds,'' said Ed Presnell, president of the Augusta
Metro Chamber of Commerce. ''When they start mailing out tickets,
the mindset starts changing again.''

Presnell said hotel bookings and home rentals are on track with
last year, when demand was weakened because of the 2001 terrorist
attacks.

Some Augustans, such as Starr, say companies are more worried
about the budget pressures than the women's issue. Others
acknowledge they are loath to give any credit to Martha Burk, head
of the NCWO.

Vera Stewart, owner of Very Vera catering, normally has her
Masters menus planned by now. But she says several corporate
customers have put off signing contracts until January.

''I'm not willing to say that has anything to do with Martha
Burk,'' Stewart said. ''She's not going to hurt my business.''

Burk said she understands the frustration in Augusta. But she
says Augusta National deserves the blame, not herself.

''Even if I decided tomorrow to give up this fight, the
tournament is so tainted. Sponsors would still not come back until
the policy is changed,'' Burk said.

If Augusta National doesn't back down, Burk said, public
protests will be certain. She said groups have submitted ideas from
wearing Afghan-style burqas colored green to mock Masters
champions' fabled green jackets, to forming ''a good-ol' boy
doo-wop band call Hootie and the Blowhards.''

Col. Gary Powell of the Richmond County sheriff's department
said nobody has applied yet for a public demonstration permit,
which Augusta requires, but peaceful protests will be allowed.

''I think their biggest problem will be finding a place to stay
while they're here,'' Powell said.