Men-only club bother you? He doesn't give hoot

April 10, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. - After he dismissed the corporate sponsors, saving Coke and IBM the dirt of Augusta's archaic ways, and after he told CBS don't worry about lost ad revenues, Augusta will pay the whole freight for this little down-home golf tourney, what could possibly be left in Hootie Johnson's golf bag of tricks?

Kudos to Hootie. The chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club really knows how to tee it up.

We thought Hootie only had a sand wedge left in his battle-of-the-sexes arsenal, but look what the master of the Masters did with it: darned near hit a hole in one yesterday, when he came out swinging.

Say what you want about Hootie, but the Masters is definitely his party. He'll be defiant if he wants to.

"Over the last 10 months, everything that could possibly be said on the subject of Augusta National and its membership has been said," Johnson said yesterday. "The fact is, we are a private club. A group getting together periodically for camaraderie, just as thousands of clubs and organizations do all over America.

"Just because we host a golf tournament, because some of our members are well-known, should not cause us to be viewed differently. I have also stated that there may well come a time when we include women as members of our club, and that remains true. However, I want to emphasize that we have no timetable and our membership is very comfortable with our present status.

"Now, going forward, our club will continue to make its own decisions. And we hope we will continue to make what hopefully is a major contribution to the game of golf and to charity."

Dear, old, intractable Hootie.

How deep does the chairman's conviction run about men-only at his private club?

As deep as the roots of the famous old oak that spreads its generous branches out in front of the Augusta clubhouse.

As deep as the green in those infamous jackets.

As deep as a Tiger Woods drive sinks into the grass on these rain-soaked Augusta fairways.

As deep as the drawl that emanates from the lips of the Augusta chairman.

Toto, I have a feeling we're not at one of the world's pre-eminent sporting events anymore. This Masters, more than ever, feels more like Jurassic Park this week.

Home, home on Hootie's driving range. Where the golfers and the dinosaurs play. Extinction is the best way to affect change.

"You're not going to get rid of me any time soon," Hootie said.

For 10 months, Hootie promised he would not be driven to change Augusta's membership rules even at the point of a bayonet. Yesterday, Hootie took it about six feet farther, or under, promising he would stick it to outside agitators (re: Martha Burk and those who push "the women issue") even after death do them part.

Listen:

"I want to make one point. If I drop dead right now, our position will not change on this issue. It's not my issue alone. And I promise you what I'm saying. If I drop dead this second, our position will not change."

And that was how Hootie ended his meet-the-press conference, with the back row of the room ringed with men in green jackets that demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that full-scale diversity is a selective item on Hootie's agenda.

Soon enough, if the weather cooperates, we are going to focus on the golf in this bastion of Southern gentlemanly comfort. It's not just Hootie and Martha we're interested in. There's a lot of fun to be had with some of the real players in this tournament, like Woods and Ernie Els for starters.

Why, for instance, hasn't Woods announced that he's hired a personal chef after his girlfriend nearly killed him with that bad pasta during the Bay Hill tournament?

And why hasn't someone properly lampooned Els for injuring his wrist on a punching bag - a punching bag! - and jeopardizing his Masters chances? Do concert pianists get in shape sparring with heavy bags? They don't, so why would Els, with the best chance of toppling Woods in these azaleas, resort to this form of exercise?

For now, though, as thousands of men and women stream through the private gates of Augusta, this private club becomes a very large, very public stage.

It's in this context that Hootie's inability (or unwillingness) to put aside the legal right of his club to retain its exclusionary membership rules and instead embrace the moral right of his club to reflect the general population becomes a viable issue.

As Gary Player - one of the few PGA golfers to actually speak out against Augusta's membership policy - said yesterday, there are 3 million TV viewers for the Masters, a million of whom are women.

"Look at the galleries. Look at who watches on TV. I don't think you would want people to feel slighted. If it was my course, I would allow women as members," Player said.

Not that Hootie sees it this way.

"Just because we present a world-class sporting event one week a year doesn't affect our private-club status," he said.

"Our private club does not discriminate. Single-gender is an important fabric on the American scene. There are thousands and thousands across America. Both genders. Health clubs, sewing circles, Junior League, Shriners. We resent it very much when that accusation about discrimination is made against us."

Of course, we are still searching for the sewing circle that sponsors one of the world's most prestigious sporting events. If we find it, maybe they'll break the gender barrier and invite Hootie. He can sure thread a tight needle.

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