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Commercials back again at Masters

Television advertising is back at the Masters.

Martha Burk and her campaign against the all-male membership at Augusta National might not be too far behind.

Ending two years of a commercial-free broadcast at golf's highest-rated event, Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said Friday three corporate sponsors -- ExxonMobil, SBC Communications and IBM -- will provide four minutes of commercials every hour in a telecast that has been extended 90 minutes.

Johnson dropped the previous TV sponsors two years ago when Burk and her National Council of Women's Organizations began to pressure companies, claiming their sponsorship was a veiled endorsement for sex discrimination.

All but forgotten at the last Masters, the new sponsors could give Burk's cause fresh legs.

``I'm shocked that any responsible company would want to be identified with the blatant sex discrimination practiced by Augusta National,'' Burk said. ``Perhaps these companies think the controversy has gone away. It has not. It will not.''

Burk's protest of the 2003 Masters fizzled in a grassy lot a half-mile from the club, where her 40 supporters were dwarfed by media and police.

A federal appeals court ruled four months ago that Augusta, Ga., city officials should not have kept Burk from protesting outside the gates of the golf course.

Burk said it was too early to tell if she would return for the '05 Masters, but ``nothing is stopping us.''

The television sponsors at the Masters before the all-male membership became an issue were IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup. Spokesmen at Coca-Cola and Citigroup declined comment when asked if they had a chance to return.

``We're sponsoring a tournament,'' ExxonMobil spokesman Lauren Kerr said. ``The Augusta membership is a decision for their board. But the Masters Tournament stands as one of the world's leading sporting events, and that's where our focus is.''

An SBC spokesman referred to a statement on its Web site that said it was a great opportunity, as one of only three television sponsors, to reach millions of viewers.

A spokesman for IBM did not immediately return calls seeking comment. IBM has assisted the Masters with scoring operations the last two decades.

Johnson had said the club could go on ``indefinitely'' without TV advertising revenue. Still, Augusta National raised four-day ticket prices to last year's Masters from $125 to $175, and the Masters reaps revenue from merchandise sales and international TV rights. The Masters is broadcast in 190 countries.

In a release from the club, Johnson did not say why the Masters decided to return to television sponsors, only that the fans would be pleased with the additional TV coverage, and that the sponsors are leaders in their fields that ``will make a positive contribution to this tournament.''

The club said Johnson would have no further comment.

USA Network will add an additional 30 minutes of coverage the first two rounds (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. EDT), while CBS Sports will add 30 minutes to its coverage of the third round (3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. EDT). Coverage of the final round remains 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Phil Mickelson, who recently signed a deal with ExxonMobil to promote math and science education, is the defending champion after making an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win his first major.

While Augusta National does not have a membership policy, it has not had a female member in its 70-year history.

The debate over the all-male membership, and the separation between a private club and a public tournament, reached just about every corner imaginable in golf leading up to the 2003 Masters.

Burk asked the PGA Tour to no longer count the Masters as an official victory or official money. Newspaper editorials demanded that Johnson resign as club chairman and urged Tiger Woods to boycott the Masters.

It all started with letter Burk sent to Johnson on June 12, 2002, recommending that the club invite a woman to join so that it would not become an issue at the next Masters.

Johnson took that as a threat and fired off a three-page statement in which he said Augusta National would not be bullied or intimidated. In what became a slogan to the 10-month campaign, Johnson said the club might one day have a female member on its own timetable, ``not at the point of a bayonet.''

Burk launched her campaign by attacking television sponsors, which Johnson dismissed to keep them out of the fray, and CBS Sports, which said it would continue to broadcast the Masters. She later launched a Web site that included a ``Hall of Hypocrisy,'' in which the NCWO listed corporations that claimed to have policies against sex discrimination, but whose CEOs were members at Augusta National.

Relatively quiet the last year, Burk said her campaign has not died, and that the new television sponsors can expect to hear from her organization.

``I think we'll probably get in touch with the three companies,'' she said. ``It's a heck of a statement to make to their employees, customers and shareholders that gender discrimination is not serious.''

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