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Augusta bracing itself for Masters

The popular belief is that Augusta, Ga., is a sleepy town nestled deep in the Georgia pines. In the midst of it all is the quaint, peaceful and famed Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters golf tournament.

Come the second week in April, the world will see a much different Augusta.

For the first time, reporters and cameras will record pictures and sounds of discord from outside the golf club's gates.

Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, plans to besiege Augusta with 200-plus supporters to protest the private golf club's lack of female members. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and members of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition are scheduled to join in the protest.

In response, the Los Angeles-based Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny has applied for a permit to protest the protestors.

Also, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan based in Cordele, Ga., that supports Augusta National's all-male membership will be there, as will an anti-Burk group from Tampa, Fla.

Some pro-war demonstrators are expected to show, too.

It's a very fluid situation, but so far between 400 and 500 demonstrators are expected in Augusta to demonstrate on a five-acre plot of land on Washington Rd., about a half-mile from the main entrance to the club.

Officials, worried about the impact on the region's economy and the city's reputation, are not pleased.

"There seems to be more hype than substance to this when you look at reality and the applications to protest that have been filed and the number of people that are anticipated," says Augusta Mayor Bob Young. "To me, this is kind of get your 15 minutes of fame."

Maybe so, but there is no denying that the controversy is having a financial impact. Several corporations and businesses have opted not to come to the tournament, or to downscale significantly from what they would normally spend.

Past estimates have the golf tournament bringing in nearly $100 million during Masters week. This year the figure is expected to be significantly less.

Critics of the protestors point out that catering companies, many owned by women, will be among the groups hardest hit.

"We take in about $800,000 in a normal year during Masters week," said Terry Wick, owner of The Clubhouse, a banquet and catering business located directly across from the golf club's main gate. "This year, we'll do about $540,000. We're off 50 basic clients per day from what we had expected to do."

Augusta National holds unparalleled power in the region because of the money the Masters generates. Thousands of people who have never been to the tournament benefit in a variety of ways.

Many residents rent their homes at a rate of $1,000 or so per bedroom to visitors. Some of the bigger homes go for as much as $25,000 for the week.

Not this year, however.

"I know of about 100 homes that aren't rented that normally are," Wick said. "There are some really hot folks here."

Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce president Ed Presnell said while it is true that major companies might want to low-key this year's activities, the protests are a convenient cover for companies who want to pinch pennies in hard times.

Presnell believes many Masters regulars will still be on hand, although their attendance will be less public.

"So although they might not be making reservations in corporate names, they may make reservations in an individual's name," he said. "And I really believe that a lot of folks are using these outside matters as a way of camouflaging the real facts, and that is the economy's been tight."

Burk doubts that, arguing that many Fortune 500 companies are not coming because they don't want to be associated with discrimination.

"It's not a result of our actions that they have lost business, it's a result of the club members' actions," she said. "This is something that I think the local business leaders need to think through. What they seem to be disconnected on is that NCWO doesn't have the ability to change the policy at Augusta. Only the club members have that ability and they can instantly end this.

"They could have prevented this loss of business months ago by doing the right thing."

The controversy doesn't seem to be affecting the city's 67 hotels, which report nearly all of their 5,400 available rooms are booked.

(Jackson and the rest of his organization are staying in area hotels. Burk and her group say they will stay in Atlanta and commute to Augusta.)

Restaurants also expect to do well, although one restaurateur vowed to do a little selective seating if circumstances warrant.

"Nobody from the KKK is coming in this restaurant," said Ouida Dalton, manager of The Pizza Joint, which sits about a mile away from the club in downtown. "The only thing I'll be doing is calling the police to see how fast they can come and get them out of here."

Many in the local community want the club and the tournament to thrive, regardless of how they feel about its membership policies.

"Knowing that Augusta National has been the centerpiece of our reputation and image throughout the country, we're very protective of our relationship and we hold it in a high regard," Presnell said. "We're proud to be associated. We're proud that it is the Augusta National Golf Club."

"It's not a very fine line for the mayor to walk," says Young, the mayor. "Augusta National is a very important institution to this community in a number of ways. ... And we're going to support their right to operate their club under the protection of the Constitution of the United States of America."

Ms. Burk disagrees with the mayor's position on the duties of the city's officials to their residents.

"I'm sure the chamber has some policy against discrimination," she said. "Certainly, I think there's a certain conflict of interest there. I also think it's too bad that the club is willing to sacrifice the local economy in the way they have."

 

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