Accessibility links

Augusta National Chief:  Public Tired of Dispute with Martha Burk - 2004-04-07

Augusta National Golf Course chairman William Hootie Johnson says his club is eager to get past the contentious women's issues that surrounded the Masters tournament last year.

Johnson says a dispute with women's rights activist Martha Burk should not be the focus when the Masters - the first major golf tournament of the year - gets underway at the men-only club Thursday.

Burk is the head of the National Council of Women's Organizations. She has retained a well-known civil rights lawyer, Cyrus Mehri, to help with an inquiry into the sex-discrimination practices of companies whose top executives are members of Augusta National.

Some of the companies include American Express, Bank of America, Franklin Templeton, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Prudential. All have either a chairman or chief executive officer that is a member of Augusta.

At a news conference Wednesday, Johnson said he thinks that the American public is tired of the dispute with Martha Burk.

?You know, I really think the American public is ready for us to talk about golf,? he said. ?Our golf course is in the best condition it's ever been. We've got a great field. We think we're going to have it hard and fast, and that's what we're here today to talk about is golf.?

For two years Burk has been leading a campaign to get the Augusta Club to admit women. Last year she threatened to lead a boycott against tournament sponsors, so the Masters was broadcast without television commercials. A poorly attended protest against the men-only policy was moved to a remote parking lot.

The Masters will be commercial free again this year, but in a sign of where things appear to be headed, Johnson said the arrangement will not be permanent.

Johnson was also asked about 14-year-old golf phenom Michelle Wie.

?We would be pleased to have Michelle play in the Masters Tournament if she qualifies,? he said.

But Wie will not be given an exemption to play in the prestigious event. The most likely way for her to earn her spot would be to win the men's U.S. Amateur Public Links, or to reach the finals of the men's U.S. Amateur.

However, Hootie Johnson defended the decision to give Chinese golfer Zhang Lian-Wei a special invitation to compete this year.

?Well, first, all you know, we have historically invited international players, given invitations to international players,? he said. ?We felt that it was good for the game of golf to extend a hand to the most populous nation in the world. He is a good golfer and we thought it was entirely appropriate.?

The 38-year-old Zhang will tee off with two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer of Germany and Sergio Garcia of Spain in the opening round.