Famed Golf Course Pressured to Allow Women

The Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, is where the movers and shakers of business and politics belong, but only, it seems, if they are men.

For decades, women have been trying to gain equal access around the country to private clubs like Augusta in Georgia. A lot of business is conducted at these courses, not only on the fairways, but at the clubhouses and bars.

So in June, Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, sent a letter to the chairman of Augusta National, William "Hootie" Johnson, urging him to invite a woman to join.

The response from Johnson — who once served as co-chairman of a committee to develop a plan to desegregate South Carolina colleges — made it clear that Augusta National was a private club and would be not be bullied.

"There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet," Johnson wrote back.

Officials at Augusta National refused to be interviewed on camera. But some believe Augusta had been on the verge of admitting women, before abruptly changing course when Burk's letter arrived.

Augusta National says that while women cannot become members, it does allow the wives and other female associates of club members to play on its course as guests. However, ABCNEWS was unable to confirm whether that those women are subject to restrictions.

Growing Controversy

Burk says it's important for women to be allowed to join, not just tag along as a man's guest.

"This just reminds women of all the ways they still feel second class," she said.

After Burk contacted three of the Masters' advertisers — Coca-Cola, IBM and Citigroup — Johnson unexpectedly announced the 2003 Tournament would be broadcast commercial free. That meant Augusta would lose up to $7 million.

"I can't think of another time when sponsors were in effect fired," said Jim Andrews, editorial director of the IEG Sponsorship Report, which monitors corporate underwriting of public events. "Augusta has announced it is willing to pay millions of dollars to continue to discriminate against women."

And while Augusta's actions may be unprecedented, it is not the only private club that has chosen to forgo millions of dollars rather than let women in. When a court ruled that Burning Tree Golf Club in Maryland must admit women or lose $1.2 million in tax breaks, the club chose the latter.

Golf has already weathered a similar controversy with minorities. In 1990, Shoal Creek Country Club, near Birmingham, Ala., gave a black man an honorary membership as part of an agreement to head off protests by civil rights groups at the PGA Championship. After that, clubs across the country began to admit black members.

Network Refuses to Drop Coverage

Today, according to Burk, Augusta National could make a similar impact when it comes to women. But unable to persuade the club, she switched gears this week and applied pressure on CBS, asking the network to drop its coverage of the Masters.

CBS still plans to televise the tournament. In a letter faxed to Burk on Thursday, CBS Sports President Sean McManus said he appreciated her position, but "as a sports television programmer serving millions of men and women who eagerly anticipate and avidly watch the Masters network broadcast each year, CBS will cover the Masters as it has done for the past 46 years."

"To not do so would be a disservice to fans of this major championship," McManus said.

Burk, however, is not likely to drop the issue.

"It's not a legal battle. It's a moral one," she argued. "Yes, they [Augusta National] have a legal right to do it. They have the moral imperative to do better."

ABCNEWS' Diane Mendez contributed to this report.

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