Masterful stupidity

April 11, 2003

IN ITS 67th year, the tradition-soaked Masters tournament, held annually at the exclusive Augusta National Golf Club, will be a bit different. Rain drenched the splendid Georgia course this week, so it may not play so hard and quick. Tiger Woods is going for an unprecedented third straight victory. And oh yes, there's that flap about women not being welcome as members of the club.

That shouldn't be a problem, and ultimately it won't: Women will join the club's elite ranks - of rich executives - sooner rather than later. But this week, this Masters, it's a problem, and for that the club can blame itself and its president.

Some find William Johnson antediluvian. After all, he's a 72-year-old retired Bank of America chairman nicknamed "Hootie." But the former South Carolina legislator long ago earned a progressive reputation on civil rights - making all the more unfortunate the socio-political sinkhole into which he flung himself by stubbornly declaring Augusta might accept a woman, "but not at the point of a bayonet."

That was a godsend for Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations. She's been raising a stink about Augusta's men-only membership, organizing a big protest tomorrow coincident with network TV coverage of the Masters' final rounds. It's been enough of a threat that Augusta - rather than suffer pressure from its TV advertisers - opted to take a hit of at least $7 million by telling CBS to skip all ads, a first for a premier sports event.

Mr. Johnson is technically right: Private clubs can legally exclude women or ask them to follow different rules. (That happens all over, including in Maryland.) Nor is the issue that more women are cropping up as serious golfers (including some women who play Augusta with no restrictions).

All that misses the key point: More and more women are leading America's corporate headquarters, a game in which golf club memberships are still often essential. No wonder such firms as Citigroup - long involved with the Masters - are reportedly distancing themselves.

Mr. Johnson can take pride in standing up to the rabble, but inevitably the Masters won't be able to stand up to the American marketplace. Maybe if Augusta were just another club, it could, but for one week a year it takes a lucrative center stage - giving us all glimpses of the very highest end of the corporate golf world.

America's corporate sports culture may accept and even revere Augusta's fundamental exclusivity - based on wealth and class - but it ultimately can't tolerate its high-profile exclusion of women. In that sense, Mr. Johnson's stance is not only unacceptable, it's just plain stupid.

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