March 22, 2010— -- There are good reasons Tiger Woods picked the Masters Tournament for his upcoming return to professional golf. Held at the most storied and historic home of the game in America, Augusta National was where Woods won his first major in 1997, and its long-established rules of etiquette should protect him from heckling crowds or prying questions from reporters.
But if Woods is looking to win hearts and minds as much as he is a green jacket, some women say, there is no worse place than Augusta National for him to seek redemption -- it's a club that notoriously excludes women from becoming members.
Calling Woods' decision to play at the Masters a "slap in the face to women," USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan said discrimination at the club against women is tolerated in ways it would not be if African-Americans or other minorities were similarly excluded.
"Is there something tone-deaf about this [decision]? Sure there is. But the male-dominated golf world has never really cared about the issue of discrimination against women at Augusta National," Brennan told ABC News.com. "That this is the place that Tiger Woods decides to come back with these apparently well-documented issues that he has with women is ironic at best, and, I guess you could say, a slap in the face to women at worst."
Woods will attempt to win his 15th major when the tournament opens April 8 at the Augusta, Ga., club.
Just two days after Woods announced he would end his four-month hiatus from golf in the wake of a spiraling sex scandal and allegations of marital infidelity from a raft of women, one alleged mistress Thursday leaked a series of raunchy text messages reportedly from the golfer.
In the text messages provided by former porn star Joselyn James, Woods, who said Tuesday he would continue therapy for sex addiction, allegedly suggested that he wanted to choke James and urinate on her as a form of sex.
Women's-rights groups contend that the public has an insatiable interest for all things related to Tiger and his relationships with women, except when it comes to his support of a club that maintains a decades-old policy of sexism.
Tiger Woods' Return: at Augusta, Which Excludes Women
"I only wish the press would get as outraged about women being denied the clear opportunities that Augusta membership represents -- membership often purchased at taxpayer expense -- as they did about Tiger Woods' dalliances. If Mr. Woods is looking for redemption for his transgressions, I find it odd that he would head to a men-only club," said Susan Scanlan, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations.
Founded in 1933, the club has hosted the Masters Tournament for 76 years and its membership roster reads like a Who's Who of American politicians, businesspeople and powerbrokers, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and members of Congress.
In 1990, Augusta admitted its first African-American member, but the club has never allowed women to join, though they are allowed to play as guests.
In 2002 and 2003, the National Council of Women's Organizations, led by Martha Burk, organized a series of protests against the club to reverse its policy, including a demonstration outside the club during the 2003 Masters Tournament.
At the time, two members resigned: Thomas H. Wyman, the former CEO of CBS, and John Snow, who left the club only after being nominated to become secretary of the Treasury.
After repeated calls to weigh in on the controversy, Woods repeatedly tried to stay out of the debate.
In November 2002, Woods said he believed membership should be extended to women. Despite his standing as the world's most prominent golfer, Woods said he had little influence on Augusta National's decision.
"I think there should be women members," Woods told reporters at the time. "But it's not up to me. I don't have voting rights; I'm just an honorary member."
"As I've said before, everyone is entitled to their own opinion," he said.
Despite the storm of interest and outrage directed at the club seven years ago, the policy to exclude women members remains in place.
Augusta National would not comment on the policy, telling ABC News.com, " the club does not discuss membership issues."
Tiger Woods' Return: at Augusta, Which Excludes Women
In what is predicted to be the most-watched Masters Tournament ever, some observers say fans will concentrate on Woods and not Augusta National's membership policy.
"For better or worse, this issue didn't get any traction in 2003," said Jim Gorant, the golf editor at Sports Illustrated. "People will distinguish between the Masters and the club. They can put aside what they believe when it comes to the tournament.
"No one is putting Tiger and his problems together with Augusta's policies. People are excited to see him come back, they're curious to see him come back. The immediacy of the problems with his marriage overwhelms any of the politics at Augusta," he said.
Woods' troubles began Nov. 27, when a late-night car accident near his Orlando, Fla., home exploded into allegations about marital infidelity. Days later, Woods announced he would take an "indefinite leave" of absence from golf.
In his time away from the links, outrage over Woods' admitted "transgressions" has ebbed and flowed, though interest in the most puerile details of his sex life has remained high.
In a recent ABC News poll, 65 percent of respondents said they wanted to see Woods return to golf this season.
Women, however, were more likely to see Woods in an unfavorable light given his recent history.
Twenty-nine percent of men and 37 percent of women said they see Woods unfavorably, according to the poll.