Archive for Monday, April 7, 2003

Ban tarnishes Augusta image

April 7, 2003

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— To be honest, I've had a bit of trouble shifting into high dudgeon over the exclusion of women from the Augusta National Golf Club. The 300-member inner sanctum of CEOs is one reason I didn't play golf until I hit middle age.

I thought all golfers were like them. I thought you needed a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union and proof of your direct descent from Bobby Jones to go out on a course. I thought I'd have to play with men wearing green pants and whale belts, and carrying Big Berthas covered with fuzzy eagle heads.

So I wasn't eager to tie myself to the track -- or chain myself to the flag on the fourth green -- for the right of a handful of elite women to stand beside a handful of elite men. All dressed in the same leprechaun-colored jacket.

Nevertheless, I find myself chuckling as I watch the Boys of Augusta brine in their PR pickle. As they approach the opening day of the Masters tournament on their hallowed turf, they look less and less like Masters of the universe.

Martha Burk began the controversy a year ago. The chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations and self-described "political psychologist" wrote a letter to the chairman of Augusta, admonishing him to admit women.

William "Hootie" Johnson, father of four daughters, banker, political kingmaker, came down with what golfers call a case of the "yips." His first drive went ballistic and public. "We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case," he huffed. Someday we may have women members, he puffed, but "not at the point of a bayonet."

Thus began a front-page, prime-time duel of words, if not bayonets. Burk herself had no idea that the green ceiling would become the feminist cause of the year. After all, as Burk puts it, "In Washington you could set your hair on fire in front of the White House and not get a news story about a women's issue."

Nor might she have chosen to sacrifice her hair to Augusta. Asked the top five women's issues on her scorecard, she rattles off, "Reproductive rights, Social Security, the assault on Title IX, the assault on affirmative action and welfare reauthorization."

On the other hand, this is not just about golf. It's about money and power, insiders and kept-outsiders. The Augusta members -- average age 72 -- include present or retired honchos of IBM and Chevron, Exxon and Coke, General Electric and AT&T. They include the treasurer of Harvard and the ambassador to Great Britain. You get the idea.

If you don't get the idea, Burk spells it out, "This literally is the Fortune 500. These are the leaders of American business, the companies that market to women every day and claim to value women as employees and customers." Does anyone believe that there's no business, however subtle, done on and between the links?

"These corporations control the economic lives of a lot of working women," says Burk. Should the folks who count on women as employees and customers exclude them from their tree house?

What if it's a private tree house? Hootie Johnson compares Augusta to the Boy Scouts, which is sweet and humble. However, girls can play with boys at Augusta; they can't be members. Martha Burk, on the other hand, compares Augusta to the Jaycees, whom you may remember were forced open to women.

The law is dicey on when a private club becomes public and subject to anti-discrimination laws. In some places, all it takes is a liquor license. The Masters is not your Friday night poker game. Augusta, which hosts the very national PGA event, probably falls into the gray area. But this is one of those moments when the law is less important than the symbolism.

The club welcomed the first African-American member only in the 1990s. Now the Boys of Augusta are discovering that keeping women out is just a touch worse for your public and corporate image than moving the ball with your foot.

The public signal for all-male golf clubs came when John Snow resigned from Augusta National as he was about to become secretary of the treasury. (Alas, new member Bill Gates didn't get the memo.) The men who once bragged about being members are now exposed as members.

In the spirit of the game, I for one would like to give Hootie a mulligan. Let him go back to the first tee and try this round again. He might even send letters of invitation to such golfers as, say, Sandra O'Connor or Nancy Lopez.

Otherwise, as they say on my fairway, "FORE!"

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