Masters Controversy Rages On

Martha Burk is angry. Angry, she says, that in these tight economic times corporate executives are throwing lavish parties at this week's Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.

"Open bars, liquor flowing freely" she says, listing the excesses, "exotic entertainment, private jets."

The CEOs' membership in the elite and expensive Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters tournament, gives them entrée to one of the highest-profile events in sports and access to the most elite golfers in the world.

And Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, is launching a Web site to list just who those CEOs are.

But the executives' excesses are not at the heart of her crusade. She's not trying to put a stop to the perks and parties that come with Augusta National Golf Club membership. She wants to make sure women can have them, too.

"They're shutting women out," says Burk. "This is wrong. It needs to be changed."

The Augusta National Golf Club, like a number of golf clubs in the United States, does not admit women as members.

"Immoral," Burk says, "sex discrimination at the highest level."

Turning to Bad Press

She has been determined, for months, to force the Augusta club to change. But her early efforts backfired when the club's chairman, Hootie Johnson, dug in his heels, saying that while there "may come a time when we include women as members of our club," he wasn't going to let Burk's organization set "the timetable."

So Burk has decided to change tactics — targeting, instead, the corporate executives who pay the dues to join the club. Her aim is to make those executives extremely uncomfortable, by contrasting the expensive parties to facts about layoffs at their companies, tax problems, and outlandish perks — in short: getting them bad press.

What do those corporate troubles have to do with the fact that Augusta won't admit women? Very little. But it is an effective way, she says, of getting the Augusta club to finally listen to her.

It is a lesson she learned from other interest groups.

"Julian Bond of the NAACP sent us a statement of support early on in this campaign and I'll just paraphrase what he said," she said at an Atlanta press conference. "Economic pressure has always been an effective tool of social change. I think the colloquial way to put that is you have to follow the money."

And she concedes that is what this debate comes down to: money. It is not about equal access to the Augusta course for the average female golfer. Women can golf at Augusta. It's just that they — like the majority of men who play the course there — have to do so as guests of the few, highly paid corporate power brokers who have managed to land a membership in the club. And, for now, all of them are men.

Martha Burk believes highly paid corporate women power brokers should have the same opportunity. And that's what this fight is really about — women's ability to do business at the highest corporate level, to have all doors open to them, even the doors to the golf course so they can entertain their high-profile clients at high-profile affairs just like their male counterparts do.

"That's absolutely right. Business is done at the highest corporate level" at clubs like Augusta, she says. "And I believe if a CEO is willing to tolerate a club that shuts out his female counterparts, then he's willing to tolerate a pay gap in his company, probably a glass ceiling, and who knows what else?"

And denying high-profile women executives access to places like the Augusta club, she argues, is damaging to their careers. "We have only 6 percent CEOs in the Fortune 500 right now. There's a reason for that. They're being shut out of this type of venue."

A Progressive Under Fire

As for Hootie Johnson, he just quietly rolls his eyes when he hears those arguments. He does not see why the Augusta club has become a lightning rod for Burk's group.

And there is irony for him in all of this, as well. Until this controversy arose, he was known as a something of a progressive in the Deep South. He was among those pushing early on for equal access for blacks to the Augusta club and, in fact, to the sport of golf itself.

It is not entirely clear why Johnson sees this latest issue of access so differently. He has said relatively little, publicly, on the subject.

"We are a private club," he said recently, "a group getting together periodically for camaraderie, just as thousands of clubs and organizations do all over America. Just because we host a golf tournament, or because some of our members are well-known, should not cause us to be viewed differently."

His view has widespread support in Augusta.

Billboards and buttons proclaiming "I Support Hootie" have sprouted all over this town of 40,000. There are also signs and buttons meant to send a message to Martha Burk: her name, encircled in red, with a red slash through it. And an unscientific poll of sidewalk-strollers here found many who support the Augusta club's determination to select its members as it wishes.

"I'm very much for it," said Sally Savage, an Augusta resident. "If this is a private club and they want to keep it a private club, I really think they should."

Southerners Support the Club

Mike Watson, here to watch the goings-on around the Masters tournament, said that if the Augusta club "were a federally funded organization, I'd feel quite different." But, he said, men should be able to have their own private clubs. Women, too. "I think if women wanted to form a country club and keep men out, that should be their privilege."

Lisa Sherrouse of Augusta says it's a matter of choice, in a way. Southerners don't particularly like outsiders telling them how they should run their lives — or their clubs. "If I had an organization and I didn't want men in, I wouldn't want it dictated how I would run it."

And here in Augusta, Martha Burk is an outsider. She is planning a protest on Saturday, and most of the protesters will be driving in from other cities, flying in from other states. She doesn't expect the protests to change the minds of many in Augusta. What she's hoping is that the publicity, particularly the specific and negative publicity aimed at the Augusta club's high-profile corporate members, will provide real momentum for her cause.

"Corporate America, I have challenged them to come out, step up and say they support this discrimination or not."

What she expects to see happen is a domino of resignations from the Augusta club, given the pressure she's putting on. "They're going to have to resign," she says.

As for what that might do to the tournament, or the sport itself that, she says, is something the Augusta club should have thought about when she first raised the issue. The way to limit the damage now, she argues, is to invite a woman to become a member.

"This should have ended a long time ago. They should do the right thing, get it behind golf, get it behind the players, get on with their business which is producing a golf match which used to be the crown jewel of golf."

Many believe it still is the crown jewel of golf. But most concede, no matter which side of this debate they're on, that the controversy has left it tarnished.