The famed Masters Golf Tournament begins April 8 in the southern city of Augusta, Georgia, one year after one of the biggest controversies in American golf history. The 2003 tournament was shadowed by the protests of Martha Burk and other women's rights advocates, who objected to the fact that the Augusta National private golf club admits only male members. How that standoff became a major media event, with an ongoing impact, is the subject of a new book by Sports Illustrated writer Alan Shipnuck.
Alan Shipnuck calls the dispute over Augusta National the biggest story in golf since the appearance of champion Tiger Woods.
"You have these beautifully drawn protagonists in Hootie Johnson, chairman of Augusta National, this rock-ribbed southern gentleman, and Martha Burk, who is the chairman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, this brilliant, relentless woman who had spent her whole life as an advocate for feminist issues," he said. "And they brought so much energy to this controversy that spun out in so many different directions, and I just wanted to be part of it."
The controversy began in 2002 with a private letter written by Martha Burk to Hootie Johnson. "She was on her way to a family gathering for Easter, and she picked up [the newspaper] USA Today, and there was story about Augusta National, the fact that it's all male and it has some interesting ramifications in the world of golf," he added. "And she kind of made a mental note, 'I think I'm going to send this man a letter and try to create a dialogue.' She didn't really anticipate what would happen next. Johnson responded with a press release mailed out to the world."
The release stated that the Augusta National would not be "bullied, threatened or intimidated," and that while the day might come when the club admitted women, change would not come at "the point of a bayonet." One of the ironies of the story, says Alan Shipnuck, is that Hootie Johnson had long been known as a progressive businessman, an early advocate of racial integration in his native South. But he was also a strong willed man, who had a tradition of more than 70 years to uphold. "The chairman of the Augusta National has been beholden to the legacy of [golfer] Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts," Mr. Shipnuck said. "It was founded in 1931 by Jones as his private refuge. He was one of America's greatest sportsmen, he was mobbed everywhere he went. And he wanted a place where he could relax and just be one of the guys. And the club has done everything it can to preserve that feeling and that tradition."
Alan Shipnuck believes that's made the Augusta National an unusually conservative club in a conservative sport. He says the Professional Golfers Association was also slow to embrace the civil rights movement, lagging behind sports like baseball.
"Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues in 1947," he said. "The PGA [Professional Golfers Association] didn't excise its 'Caucasian only' clause till 1961. And it wasn't until 1990 that most private clubs in this country were desegregated."
Known for their green jackets and penchant for privacy, Augusta National members have included some of America's most influential leaders in government and finance from President Dwight Eisenhower to Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric. Alan Shipnuck says that in the eyes of protesters, the club's high powered membership gave the controversy a broader significance.
"Augusta National's defense," he said, "through all this is that 'We're a private club, just like an all- women's health club, we're protected by the First Amendment, [that guarantees] freedom of association.' Martha Burk always said, 'This isn't about golf. This is about keeping women out of the halls of power.'"
Faced with the likelihood that TV advertisers would be pressured to condemn the club's membership policies, Hootie Johnson announced there would be no commercials for the broadcast of the Masters tournament. The Augusta National would pay for the broadcast itself. The outcome of the protest seemed at the time like a victory for Augusta National. It refused to change its membership policies and Martha Burk attracted fewer demonstrators than expected to the tournament. She won't be protesting at this year's Masters, but she's still speaking out from her home base in Washington, D.C.
"The CEOs of America's corporations, eight of which are on Wall Street, have not only maintained their memberships at Augusta National Golf Club but they have refused to speak out for change,'" she said.
Two days before the start of this year's Masters tournament, Martha Burk announced an investigation into gender bias at Wall Street investment firms. In an interview with the VOA, she said the Augusta National protest heightened awareness of the sexism that remains in corporate America. She expects this year's Masters tournament to reflect what happened last year. Once again, there will be no sponsors for the TV broadcast.
"Last year the club had put a lot of money and time into personalizing this conflict and trying to make it about Martha Burk, instead of about discrimination against women," she said. "There were anti-Burk T-shirts, golf balls, bumper stickers. This year it's probably on the surface going to be back to the golf. But when the press is still very interested in why you haven't opened to women, when you've had to raise ticket prices for fans to compensate for the fact that you don't have sponsors, then it's still a topic."
Augusta National declined to comment by telephone about last year's controversy. Alan Shipnuck says he wanted to write his book without taking sides, but he believes change at the club is inevitable.
"In a lot of ways what's happening at Augusta National is generational," he said. "The average member there is 78 years old. That means their mothers were among the first generation in this country that could vote. And I think it's going to take another generation of leadership to make change there, men who are used to working alongside women in corporations, who have daughters who are doctors and lawyers. And they won't see it as such a big deal for a woman to be in a green jacket."
Alan Shipnuck says Augusta National is a major force in a sport that needs to attract more players, including women. Mister Shipnuck believes that seeing women in an Augusta National green jacket will carry a symbolism throughout the world of golf, that the sport has reconciled what he calls its "19th century traditions" with the 21st century.