The really difficult lie at Augusta National

October 07, 2002|By Laura Vecsey

GOLF AS a symbol of white, male corporate America can always stand to have its cage rattled, so it's tough not to appreciate the debate a woman named Martha Burk spawned by taking on Augusta National Golf Club.

Of course, in sports, a feminist debate is the most unwelcome topic this side of homosexuality. It's not so much taboo as it is loathed.

For instance, how many golf insiders/writers/players/watchers have you heard during the past five months say they wish this whole Augusta story would just disappear?

Some loathe it because it's so incredible to think that in 2002, a sexist policy such as Augusta's not only exists, but it's also championed.

Word has it that angry Augusta members want to pull the Masters off CBS in retaliation for the feminist backlash against their exclusionary membership policies. If it means an end to those long hours of sepulchral coverage and that tinkling piano music, by all means: Let your anger be your guide.

Others loathe this debate because they know sexism is only one of the smarmy plot lines Augusta implies, what with billion-dollar accounting scandals and Securities and Exchange Commission probes really being the sport of corporate kings these days.

And what kind of people constitute Augusta's inner sanctum? If only Augusta had already admitted Martha Stewart as its first female member, this entire debate could have been avoided. The hostess-with-the-mostest-money may likely shoot over 110, but, boy, is she a scratch cellular phone user when it comes to insider trading.

Martha would have fit right in. Yet, with no Martha, no Hillary Rodham Clinton, no Rosie O'Donnell, no Oprah nor RuPaul as token members, Augusta's exclusionary policies continue to be ripe - and long overdue - for pillorying.

This issue is not going to go away, not when feminists are said to be gearing up for massive protests at Augusta next April, unless the good ol' boys admit their first female member before the Masters' ceremonial first tee shot. Imagine that: a million-woman march through Georgia in which no flowering pink azalea would be safe. Burning bras would give way to the flagrant immolation of green jackets. Modern-day witches won't be riding broomsticks, but Callaway drivers.

They don't call 'em "Big Berthas" for nothing, said the leader of the righteous, unruly mob.

Since June, when Burk sent a letter to Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson urging female membership, Burk has been more widely quoted than Tiger Woods.

"It's become emblematic of the sexism that is still going on in the sport and outside the sports world," she told the Associated Press on Friday as the showdown with Augusta raged on.

"Augusta has to open up or it has to stop wanting to be what it is, which is a premier golf venue and a club of great influence. The CEOs who are members are going to be under extreme scrutiny."

With statements like that, this chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations is clearly determined to instigate wider, deeper and more meaningful social and political change than anything We The Media gushed that Tiger would accomplish.

Yes, Tiger was once a one-man melting pot of youthful hope and a new world order. He would inspire a new generation of golfers in all shapes, sizes and colors - or so we dreamed. But that idealism died like an approach shot into a water hazard after Tiger sidestepped the issue of Augusta's exclusionary policies by saying, "There's nothing you can really do."

Turns out that this Nike front man does not have the kind of teeth it takes to chomp at the sexist system. Then again, why would Tiger want to upset the system he rules?

Skewering Tiger for his politically milquetoast stance is too easy, anyway. He just plays - although he could choose not to play until someone such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was invited to be a member at Augusta. Tiger has enough green jackets until they fix this. And Rice? You'd have to take numbers to get in her foursome.

But this is Johnson's problem. The Augusta club chairman created this monster, then gave it six heads by vowing never to bow to outside pressure, no matter how sharp the bayonet held to his Adam's apple.

By lashing out so dramatically in the face of Burk's challenge, Johnson drew a severe line in the sand trap. He has basically separated the world into two camps:

Those who think Augusta should cling to its membership policies vs. those who think that if the PGA and CBS sanction the Masters as the world's premier golf tournament, then Augusta ought to subscribe to social mores acceptable to the modern world.

Or at least they should subscribe to the social mores acceptable to most of the world, since the issue has been raised:

If a woman is admitted to Augusta, will she have to wear a burka?

In the meantime, Burk, emboldened, wages a campaign against Augusta and corporate hypocrites that will likely force Augusta to change sooner rather than later, no matter what Hootie says.

Embarrassed, several members have already admitted they will seek a more 21st century middle ground. Maybe they're sick of the letters Burk has sent them, asking them to reconcile their corporate policies of equality against their questionable private habits. Maybe they're sick of their wives and daughters hounding them for being so stuck in the mental town of Bedrock.

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