AUGUSTA, GA. — Talking to residents of Augusta, Ga., home of this week’s Masters golf tournament, one thing becomes rather obvious: The ten-month-old brouhaha over Augusta National Golf Club’s men-only membership policy hasn’t even registered on the map.
People here say that Martha Burk, the driving force behind the anti-Augusta movement and head of the feminist National Council of Women’s Organizations, is a shameless media hound in need of a new cause.
“You couldn’t buy this kind of publicity,” said Steve Varnell, a local taxi driver who has lived in Augusta since 1962. “I’d say probably 90% of the town is against Burk.”
Others either don’t really care, or haven’t heard of her at all.
Despite the fact that this years’ Masters could be one of the most exciting since the storied tournament’s inception in 1934 — a victory by Tiger Woods Sunday would make him the only player ever to win three-straight green jackets — the “golf journalists” here just can’t stop talking about Martha. Yesterday, at Augusta National chairman William “Hootie” Johnson’s annual pre-tournament press conference, they pounced on him like a pack of wild dogs.
Hootie opened with a prepared statement reiterating his position that Augusta is a private club, that it will make its own decisions, and that he has nothing further to say on the matter.
The reporters pounded away regardless, with 34 of the 43 questions asked dealing with the membership mêlée.
“There may well come a time when we include women as members of our club and that remains true,” Hootie said. “However, I want to emphasize that we have no timetable and our membership is very comfortable with our present status.”
When asked how he reconciled his present stance with his political history of fighting against discrimination (he led the de-segregation of South Carolina’s university system) Hootie said:
I do have a reputation for fighting against discrimination. And I have a good record and I’m proud of it. But our club does not discriminate…There are thousands and thousands [of single-gender clubs] all across America. Health clubs, sewing circles, Junior League, Shriners, and we should not and we’re not discriminating. And we resent it very much when that accusation is made against us.
Burk’s crusade doesn’t appear to have affected the city or the success of the tournament. She may have the support of the New York Times, but Augusta has the silent majority.
According to the executive director of the Augusta Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, Barry White, hotel reservations for the week are up 33% — all 6,000 rooms in town are full and patrons have to stay in neighboring communities. And as for attendance numbers at the tournament — well, let’s just say the waiting list to get a weekly badge has been closed since 1978, and it’s showing no signs of opening up soon.
Some are going to great lengths to show their support. Two entrepreneurs, Eddie Williamson and Cliff Hopkins, say they put up $50,000 of their own cash to make pro-Hootie hats, buttons, and bumper stickers. They say they’ve sold “thousands” of them this week at their booth outside the club and through their website. Once the costs are paid off, they say, they will donate any profits to the Augusta police department.
A Masters patron from Attleboro, Mass., Peter Costello, bought four buttons.
“We support Hootie against Martha. I think she should keep her nose out of it. It has absolutely nothing to do with her,” he said.
Whether Augusta should or shouldn’t have female members isn’t really the issue. It’s whether a private club has the right under the First Amendment to freedom of association. Nearly everyone, even those who want women as members, say it’s the club’s decision.
South African pro-golfer Ernie Els, acknowledging the merits of both sides of the debate, said, “For us to go to members of Augusta National Golf Club telling them, listen, you’ve got to let a lady member in here, it’s not for us to say. It’s a private club.”
Burk will be protesting Saturday a half mile from the course (her request to picket outside the club’s gates was denied by a judge.) Though she is sure to garner a great deal of media attention, golf fans and Augusta residents will only ignore her. Instead, they will spend their time focusing on what the Masters is really about — golf.
— Adam Daifallah is a Washington correspondent for the New York Sun.