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Support grows at Augusta for women

Another day, another Augusta National Golf Club member has spoken out in favor of opening the club to women.

Kenneth Chenault, chairman of American Express Co., yesterday became the fourth prominent executive in five days publicly to favor female members, extending an unlikely thawing in the battle between all-male Augusta National and the National Council of Women's Organizations.

"I believe women should be admitted as members of Augusta National Golf Club," Chenault said in a statement. "I have made my views known within the club because I believe that is the most effective and appropriate way to bring about a change in membership policy."

Chenault joins Citigroup Inc. chairman Sanford Weill, U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive Lloyd Ward and former Ford Motor Co. president Harold "Red" Poling in favoring the admission of women.

The four executives have not offered any specific timetable or process to liberalize the club's membership, but the continued expressions of support predictably pleased NCWO leader Martha Burk.

Until recently, Burk had been unsuccessful in getting any positive response from Augusta National; CBS, which televises the Masters each year; or the tournament's sponsors.

"This is one more domino. I believe this will cause others to come forward as well," Burk said. "One cannot claim to be working from the inside indefinitely, but I think the comments from Lloyd Ward and Harold Poling make it clear they want to see this happen sooner rather than later."

Augusta National officials yesterday declined comment. Since Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson said in July that the club's membership would not be changed "at the point of a bayonet," the club has remained silent.

Chenault, one of a handful of black members at Augusta, had been specifically targeted to receive an individual letter from the NCWO asking for some
reconciliation between Augusta's lack of female members and anti-discrimination policies at his workplace. Weill and Ward received similar letters, and more than 40 others also have been targeted by NCWO leaders.

Although Chenault, Weill, Boling and Ward are only four of more than 300 members at Augusta, they represent some of the nation's most prominent and influential organizations. Chenault and Weill, in particular, lead companies with more than $20billion in annual revenue. It remains unknown, however, how many members are aligned with the quartet's ideology.

Chenault's statement is also of particular interest because the company employs Tiger Woods as a spokesman via a contract worth more than $25million. Woods has expressed support for greater opportunities for women at Augusta but also has backed the club's legal right to set its own membership.

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