Johnson still holds firm on club's policy

Augusta chairman says he won't admit female member

April 10, 2003|By Wes Smith | Wes Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- More drenching rainfall and more fallout from the challenge to its all-male membership policy muddied the picture at the normally serene and meticulously groomed Augusta National Golf Club yesterday on the eve of the 67th Masters.

Club chairman Hootie Johnson showed his weariness with the long-running membership controversy at a news conference. But he made it clear the members of Augusta have no intention of giving in to Martha Burk, chairman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, who has demanded since last June that females be allowed to join the exclusive men's golf club.

"If I drop dead right now, our position will not change on this issue," Johnson said. "It's not my issue alone."

Burk sent a letter to Johnson last summer urging the private club to admit a female member. Johnson replied angrily to her letter, saying Augusta National would not accept a female member under the "point of a bayonet."

Johnson said the club has been "maligned" by Burk and her supporters, but "it hasn't been damaged."

"I think the Masters will continue to be one of the great sporting events of the world, next year and the year after," Johnson said as 60 members of his club, wearing their celebrated green jackets, stood by in support.

Even Tiger Woods, Johnson said, can't dictate what happens inside the club.

"I won't tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn't tell us how to run our private club," Johnson said.

Burk, who plans to stage a protest with as many as 200 of her own supporters in Augusta on Saturday, said she found Johnson's comments yesterday "very disappointing and a little bit sad."

"I thought it sounded like the last gasp of a dying breed, so out of touch with the times," she said. "And frankly I thought he sounded out of touch with reality when he said it wasn't an issue at all."

Late last night, a federal appeals court rejected Burk's emergency request to allow protesters just outside the front gate of Augusta National.

Now Burk must decide what her next step is. She is allowed to protest at an open field down the street from the entrance. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition are to join her.

"So, the circle is complete on cutting off our free speech rights," she said after learning of the latest court ruling against her cause. "This was our last shot. We are clearly disappointed. We have to talk to the attorneys to decide what we will do next."

An angry Burk said that the court appeared to be "conspiring" with the lower court, the club and the Augusta mayor and city council members to deny women's rights.

"We regret that they fear our message so badly that they want to keep us away from any who would hear us," she said. "Legally now we are confined to the site way away from the club gates, out of sight or earshot. Our attorneys are going to see whether we can negotiate something with the sheriff if we cut back our numbers. They are talking to the sheriff now. I doubt if we will know any more until Friday."

Yesterday, the designated 5.1-acre "protest" field was empty except for a few sheriff's deputies keeping watch and the occasional reporter, photographer or curiosity seeker.

Burk acknowledged that counter protesters opposing her demand for female members at Augusta National will probably greatly outnumber those who side with her on Saturday.

"I read that the sheriff had permitted 900 counter protesters," she said, "and I think that is a serious imbalance."

Burk noted she was particularly not enthused about the counter-protest plans of Joseph J. Harper of the American White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I certainly don't welcome the KKK," Burk said. "Their statements is that this equal rights stuff has gone too far."

In a weird twist to the controversy, three hours after Johnson defiantly said that Augusta National is comfortable with its controversial membership, he met privately in his office with LPGA legend Nancy Lopez.

Lopez, who lives in Auburn, Ga., and is often cited as a potential first female club member someday, spoke with Johnson for 15 minutes, along with her IMG agent, Sherry Whay.

Lopez said she had never before attended the Masters and was visiting to offer her support for Johnson on the gender issue. She has no problem with private clubs picking their own members.

"I'm supporting the course," she said. "I'm supporting him."

A player also represented by IMG said he interpreted the meeting as possible "baby steps" toward something more significant down the road.

Lopez, a Hall of Famer, said that she would never press the issue.

"I want to be asked," she said. "I don't want to fight my way in."

Wes Smith is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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