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Politics overshadows the 2003 Masters

As banks of thunder rolled across the golf course and lightning streaked the Georgia sky, the turbulent weather over Augusta National yesterday morning was an apt prelude to the 67th Masters.

Instead of being billed as Tiger Woods versus Ernie Els or Davis Love III, or Tiger versus history in search of an unprecedented third consecutive title, the first major of the season promises to bring to a head the festering argument between Hootie Johnson and Martha Burk.

Hootie who? Martha who? Although the chairman of Augusta National and the chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organisations have become established names in the US media over the past year, this pair of heavyweight contenders in the gender fight are perhaps less well known figures in the wider world.

With global sporting attention about to focus on the annual rite of spring known as the Masters, that could well change by the end of the week. A tournament usually appreciated for its air of refinement and colourful azaleas - as well as thrilling golf - is about to make headlines for noisy demonstrations against the club’s all-male membership policy.

Although the main protest isn’t due to take place until Saturday, other demonstrations are planned for earlier in the week, prompting police in Augusta to call in support from the Georgia State Patrol.

Officers will be equipped with riot gear - though they aren’t expected to wear it - and five prison vehicles will be used to hold troublemakers if violence erupts. Police will also use cameras outside the course to videotape the protesters.

Because of the war in Iraq, though, the demonstrations are expected to be more muted than was first feared. On top of the NCWO protests supported by the Rev Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow coalition, counter-groups such as The Burk Stops Here and Golfers for Real Cause, angered by Burk’s stance, plan to have their say. Yesterday, one of the groups insisted it will be toned down. "With all the concerns in the country," said Ronald Pontiff of Golfers for Real Cause, "my concerns are not with Martha Burk."

The story of how Hootie and the blow-out over Augusta’s men-only policy came to occupy a prominent spot in American affairs can be traced to last June when Burk wrote to Augusta National asking that women be invited to join.

Interestingly, Augusta - unlike the Royal & Ancient - had insisted for some time that one day they would admit a female member. Had Johnson written a private reply to Burk saying as much, then the controversy might never have happened. As it was, the Augusta chairman told Burk that her comments were offensive and coercive. He then issued a public statement which read: "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."

With Hootie taking a seat in the green corner, Burk waved a red rag at the Augusta bull. She wrote to sponsors of the Masters asking them to suspend backing of the event "because it legitimises discrimination".

Augusta then regained the initiative by telling sponsors their commitment was waived this year because the club felt it would be unfair for them to deal with NCWO pressure.

Since the turn of the year, as well as igniting reasonable debate, almost every crank in America has wanted a say on the subject. When the Ku Klux Klan offered Augusta their support - and the NCWO made capital of it - the club lambasted its critics, describing this latest deterioration in the debate as "utterly reprehensible".

Last week at a courtroom in Augusta, Burk filed a protest complaining the site allocated for the NCWO protest was too far from the course, claiming few would see the demonstration. A local judge is expected to give his decision shortly on whether to give the protesters a permit to demonstrate closer to the Masters’ gates.

Following in the footsteps of Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder with Bobby Jones, Bill Lane, Hord Hardin and Jackson Stephens, Johnson is far and away the most provocative chairman in Augusta’s history. Apart from fuelling the row with Burk, Johnson has also overseen numerous changes at the Masters which don’t meet with everyone’s approval.

Since becoming chairman five years past, Johnson has implemented the growth of rough for the first time, last year’s lengthening of the course and ending the lifetime exemption for past champions. The so-called Scarlet Letter episode - some former winners received notes asking them not to play - caused such a howl of dissent from Masters’ aficionados that the decision to put an age limit of 65 on participants was rescinded last week.

It was a rare example of flexibility on Johnson’s part. Even when Woods campaigned recently to have the rough (or "second cut" as it is euphemistically described here) done away with, he met with a forthright rejection. "I just asked him whether he would ever consider it," said Tiger of Hootie,"and it was definitive, straightforward. That’s the way he is. Whether you like it or not, he’s honest."

If he didn’t care for Woods’s input on course preparation, Johnson will doubtless be eager the doctor of Masters philosophy is his usual dominant self at Augusta this week. Seeking to become the first golfer to win three Masters in a row and the first player since Peter Thomson at the Open in the Fifties to win the same major three years running, no-one is more likely than Tiger to focus attention at this championship on the game.


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