If, like me, you find golf as interesting as back-to-back episodes of Asia Market Watch, you may have shared my relief that this year’s Augusta Masters came with a side attraction. Out of sight of the 18 pesticide-sodden greens, Texan-born activist Martha Burk led a protest demanding Augusta’s fairways be opened to the fairer sex.
Burk, who heads the umbrella group National Council of Women’s Organizations, charged that the all-male membership policy practiced by the Augusta National Club discriminates against women. Unfortunately, for golf, widows watching CBS, no one was chaining themselves to the 18th pin, because the protest was restricted to a site best described as “out of bounds and then some.” Being struck by stray golf balls was never a concern.
The main target of Burk’s ire has been Augusta National Club President William “Hootie” Johnson. As you might expect from a Southern gentleman, a restrained and composed repost was not his natural reaction to the accusation.
Last summer, when first questioned by Burk if he would ever admit women to the club, Hootie said he would not do so “at the point of a bayonet.” For Johnson, the issue is a simple one. The Augusta National is a private club and should have the freedom to decide who joins and, of course, who doesn’t.
But this golf war does not run along traditional liberal versus conservative lines. The Georgian, who is rightly proud of his record of fighting hard to integrate South Carolina’s schools, banks, businesses and politics, is not an easy target on which to pin archetypal Southern caricatures.
More than that, he is prepared to put his money — OK, his club’s money — where his mouth is. In order to shield corporate sponsors from potential criticism, Johnson ran this year’s tournament without them resulting in CBS’ commercial-free coverage. Now there’s a blessing, if only it had been something worth watching.
But for all his liberal credentials, there is something that niggles about Johnson’s vehement dismissal of this issue.
At first glance, Burk’s cause does seem something of a triviality. As much as Augusta National’s exclusivity grates one’s sense of fair play, it’s difficult to imagine how allowing women to hack a small, white ball round the azalea-lined course would advance the cause of feminism.
And what fashion-conscious woman would be seen wearing that awful green blazer?
But to lightly dismiss this case would be a mistake. Johnson may claim the Augusta National Club is a club like any other, but it is a club that has international prominence and therefore is seen as representative of the United States.
Johnson has claimed that the club is one of the few places that men can enjoy some time with other men. There should be places in society where both sexes can enjoy the company of their fellow sex. But to claim the Augusta National Club, the playground of presidents and CEOs with it’s $40,000 annual membership dues, as a hangout for the guys is laughable.
It’s not even accurate to describe the Augusta National as a club for men. The vast majority of male golf lovers have no more chance of entry than those who take aim from the ladies’ tee. Rather, it is a club for the incredibly wealthy and elite. In excluding women from this clique, the club is mirroring women’s under-representation in the higher echelons of society.
Legally, the right of free association grants the Augusta National Club a perfect lie, but from their position, it’s definitely an uphill putt to the high moral ground.
Chris O’Donnell is a sophomore majoring in mass firstname.lastname@example.org