Augusta National: Hootie, misogynist

April 04, 2004|By Michael E. Waller | Michael E. Waller,Special to the Sun

The Battle of Augusta National: Hootie, Martha, and the Masters of the Universe, by Alan Shipnuck. Simon & Schuster. 352 pages. $25.

When the legendary golfer Bobby Jones planned his famous Augusta National Golf Club, his dream included a second 18 holes called the "Ladies Course." It was to be built for the wives of members, an enlightened approach in 1930, especially in the South.

How ironic, then, that 72 years later the club's unenlightened membership policy -- men only -- and its world-famous Masters Tournament would come under a relentless attack by a woman activist.

The fight for the soul of the world's most prestigious golf club begun in 2002 is examined here by Alan Shipnuck, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.

Shipnuck does a masterful job, highlighted by outstanding reporting, analyzing the battle between William Woodward "Hootie" Johnson, the club's fifth chairman, and Martha Burk, president of the National Council of Women's Organizations, a confederation of 160 women's activist groups.

The battle began with a shot fired from Burk, an expert at gender discrimination but a novice at golf, in a letter to Johnson questioning the all-male membership policy at the club. Johnson, a progressive liberal in an earlier life but also stubborn beyond reason, returned the fire with a bazooka in the form of a curt "none-of-your-business" letter and a press release that said women might someday be invited to join Augusta National's membership ranks but "not at the point of a bayonet."

The lines were drawn: The club contended it was entitled to its constitutionally protected right of association and accompanying privacy, while the other side believed that as host to the world's most public and famous professional golf tournament and a leading voice in the golf industry the club had a moral obligation to be inclusive in its membership.

Burk stepped up her campaign by appealing to CEOs of corporations to drop their sponsorship of the CBS telecast of the tournament and their memberships at Augusta National. Johnson dodged her move by dropping the sponsors himself, picking up the entire telecast tab, and hiring an attack flack, an aggressive young public relations expert, Jim McCarthy.

In the course of covering the war, Shipnuck unveils the fascinating politics of the city of Augusta and peppers his narrative with mini-profiles of some of the war's most intriguing characters, including Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength and Imperial Wizard J. J. Harper of the "One-Man Klan." Shipnuck also recounts delightful snippets of history (Augusta National co-founder Cliff Roberts skirted campaign finance laws by laundering through the club $250,000 in contributions to President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1954 campaign) and examines the mounting casualties.

They included the club itself, which became the center of a controversy so toxic that the three branches of the federal government -- the White House, Congress and the U.S. Appeals Court -- were drawn into the fray. Also diminished were the images of three of history's greatest golfers -- Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

Another casualty was the most powerful editor in America, Howell Raines of The New York Times. Raines resigned his post in part because of the perceived advocacy in the way his paper covered the membership battle and for spiking (withholding from publication) two sports columns disagreeing with The Times' editorial-page positions.

Shipnuck saves his best work for dissecting the role of the media in covering the story. He examines how Burk and McCarthy used and manipulated the press and how McCarthy pioneered the technique of using Internet bloggers to advance the club's side of the story.

Shipnuck is even-handed, applauding the scoops of USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, detailing the excesses of The New York Times, criticizing ESPN for its sometimes juvenile coverage and slamming CBS for its non-coverage during the tournament. He only trips up when he states that "Columns get spiked every day in newsrooms across America." In 41 years as an editor and publisher on metropolitan newspapers, I can count on one hand the number of columns killed by me or other editors.

Even if you are weary of the constant coverage of the membership fight as the 2004 Masters Tournament gets under way later this week, Shipnuck's book is a must-read for serious golfers and students of gender discrimination.

So whatever happened to the "Ladies Course" planned in 1930? It fell victim to the Great Depression and the club's inability to raise the necessary money.

Michael E. Waller, former chairman and publisher of The Sun, spent 41 years working in newspapers, 23 as a senior editor at five newspapers. He is an avid golfer who still dreams of playing just one round at Augusta National.

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