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Masters Golf Tournament Plays On Through Controversy - 2003-04-10

The first Grand Slam golf tournament of the year, The Masters, is being played in Augusta, Georgia, against the background of controversy over its all-male membership policy.

The chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, Hootie Johnson, has been under fire for 10 months from Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Association of Women's Organizations, because the club has refused to admit female members.

But Johnson argues that Augusta National is a private club that can set its own policies.

"We are not discriminating. We resent it very much when that accusation is made against us," he said. "If I drop dead right now, our position will not change on this issue. It is not my issue alone."

Unlike golf courses that host the men's Professional Golfers' Association Tour, the ladies PGA tour (LPGA) or Champions Tour events, Augusta National is not obligated to meet the nondiscrimination standards the other PGA-sponsored events must meet. The Masters is exempt from the requirement, because the PGA Tour classifies it as an event that is not co-sponsored by the PGA.

Augusta National opened in 1932, and staged its first Masters in 1934. The club has approximately 300 members. Many are key figures in American corporations.

Because of the controversy over its exclusion of women members, club Chairman Hootie Johnson released the primary Masters sponsors from their obligations during this year's CBS network telecast of the event. They include Coca-Cola and IBM. As a result, this year's tournament is commercial-free.

Martha Burk says she is disappointed that Johnson "is so firmly entrenched in an old and antiquated policy that discriminates against women and damages the image of golf." She also says that Augusta National's all-male membership policy represents a larger problem in American society.

"There is a gender gap on this issue," he said. "Men tend to look at it as golf, just one club, one woman. Women look at it in a much broader sense. It makes them think of that pay gap, that glass-ceiling, all the ways that they feel like they are still running second in society."

Martha Burk failed in her effort to be more visible at this year's Masters. A federal court ruled against her plans to lead a protest Saturday against the all-male membership at the front gate of Augusta National. Instead, the protest will have to be staged one kilometer from the Georgia golf club's front gate.