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Chapter One: At the Point of a Bayonet
"Mr. Johnson, this is the first Masters that you're presiding over as chairman -- I just wonder how it feels personally, and what responsibility you feel to both the past and the future?"
"Well, it is a great honor to be in this position, and I feel a great responsibility to preserve the traditions and the customs established by Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts. I guess that is the main concern that I have."
With those words, William Woodward (Hootie) Johnson was officially introduced to his public. He had been named Augusta National Golf Club's fifth chairman on May 1, 1998, but it was nearly a year later -- on Wednesday of Masters week in April 1999 -- that he first commanded the stage, at the annual press conference conducted by the club chairman on the eve of the tournament. For the better part of half an hour Johnson was questioned about such mundane matters as the tournament's revamped qualifying criteria and proposals to speed up the pace of play. His responses were authoritative and informed with the proper reverence. At one point Johnson was asked if he was "nervous" about how his tenure as chairman would be remembered, given that for his first Masters he was unveiling significant changes to four holes and a well-groomed layer of rough framing the fairways -- a noteworthy departure from Bobby Jones's vision of the course. "Well, anything having to do with Augusta National is a heavy responsibility and one that we always give careful thought to," said Johnson. "It is a national treasure. It is something precious and something to be preserved."
Near the end of the Q&A session Christine Brennan raised a hand. Since the debut of her weekly column in USA Today in 1998, Brennan had emerged as one of the most prominent sportswriters in the country. Her Olympic background -- including two books about figure skating -- had provided her with an opportunity to write often about women's sports, and she was never shy about crusading for her sisters. The 1999 Masters was Brennan's first sojourn to the manly world of Augusta National; she was not imbued with the reflexive deference to this famous club that is typical of so many sportswriters covering the tournament. Earlier in the week Brennan had read a clip about Augusta National's aversion to publicly discussing its membership; without identifying herself, Brennan said to Johnson, "We were talking yesterday" -- reporters, that is -- "trying to get the numbers straight. If you wouldn't mind telling us how many African Americans there are at Augusta National and how many women members? And if there are no women members, why aren't there?"
"Well, that's a club matter, ma'am, and all club matters are private," Johnson replied.
"Are there women members?"
"That's a club matter, ma'am, and all club matters are private."
The next question was about the recent course renovations, and the press conference petered out shortly thereafter.
"I've heard reporters saying that there were chuckles in the room when I asked those questions," Brennan says. "I think that's how they want to remember the moment. As I recall, there was complete silence. Awkward silence. But afterward, some of my buddies came up and punched me on the arm and they were like, 'Way to go, you've been at the Masters exactly one day and you're already causing trouble.' That didn't bother me. What bothered me was, Why didn't anyone else follow up? Was it so unique a question, so out of left field, that they couldn't see it was a legitimate issue?"
Brennan's acidic column came out the next day, April 8, 1999, the first round of the sixty-third Masters. It began, "I made a right turn off the main drag in Augusta the other day and ended up in 1975. Or perhaps it was 1940. It was hard to tell." She recounted her exchange with Johnson, then quoted him saying, "It is something precious and something to be preserved." Brennan's kicker: "He was talking about the golf course and the tournament. And, hopefully, nothing else."
Brennan's initial clash with Johnson would grow into a scab that she would pick over and over in the years to come. At her second Masters, in what was otherwise a valentine to 2000 champion Vijay Singh, Brennan wrote, "He became only the second person of color, joining [Tiger] Woods, to win at this lily-white bastion of still mostly segregated golf, where today, in the year 2000, amazingly enough, there still are only three black members and no women." In a shrill pretournament piece the following year, Brennan made note of "the behavior of our host this week, good old Augusta National. No club this visible is doing more to promote the advancement of poor, beleaguered white men in golf than this one. It's a secret how many black and female members Augusta National has in total, but it's fairly certain there are no more than three black members, and no women members."
At the U.S. Open two months later, in a column slamming Tiger Woods for his lack of an overt social conscience, Brennan again made mention of the absence of women members at Augusta National.
By the time the 2002 Masters rolled around, even Brennan was tired of hearing Brennan rag on Augusta National. "I had become a cliché -- I had become a joke in my profession," she says. "I decided it was time to give it a rest." In fact, Brennan skipped Augusta altogether. But on Monday of Masters week, while at home in Washington, D.C., she cracked open the May/June issue of Golf for Women, a sister publication of Golf Digest. Contained within its glossy pages was an article by Marcia Chambers entitled "Ladies Need Not Apply."
Chambers was the author of a groundbreaking 1990 report for Golf Digest about the legal and ethical challenges facing exclusionary private clubs. Her interest in the topic led to the book The Unplayable Lie: The Untold Story of Women and Discrimination in American Golf. She had been installed as a contributing editor at Digest in the early nineties, becoming the conscience of the Golf Digest Companies, whose chairman and editorial director, Jerry Tarde, likes to brag in print about his membership at Pine Valley, perhaps the most macho of the country's all-male golf clubs. "Ladies Need Not Apply" was a meticulously researched, 4,500-word screed about the exclusionary membership practices of Augusta National and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the tweedy Scottish ruling body that runs the British Open. Chambers's piece would be nominated for a National Magazine Award, but with Golf for Women's petite four hundred thousand circulation, it failed to register with the public at large. Brennan, however, was intrigued by one tidbit buried on the fifth page of the story: In a roundup of Augusta National's tiny tribe of black members, Chambers mentioned Lloyd Ward, who had just become the CEO of the United States Olympic Committee. The Olympics is one of the few places in sports where women and men are on a level playing field, and Brennan was stunned that the USOC's highest-paid official would belong to an all-male club. She picked up the phone and called Ward.
On April 11, 2002, Martha Burk traveled from her home in Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas, to spend the weekend at the home of her son Mark, who was hosting a family get-together. En route she grabbed a copy of USA Today. Burk's father and two sons are avid golfers; with the Masters beginning that day, she knew it would be a topic of conversation, and, as always, she wanted to have all the answers. When Burk opened the paper to the sports section the top of the front page screamed "Augusta Faces Push for Women." When she turned the page, Brennan's column called out to her. Both pieces cited Chambers's article in Golf for Women, but USA Today was able to advance the story thanks to Ward, who had violated the basic tenet of Augusta National membership. Like mobsters and professional caddies, Augusta National members live under a code of omerta; it is verboten to speak publicly about the family business. Yet here was Ward, on page one of the USA Today sports section, saying, "I want to have influence from the inside. I want to talk to members of Augusta and say, quite frankly...you've got to have a broader membership, and that includes women." He added, "Inclusion does not just mean people of color. It should be extended to that broader base that includes women."
As the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), Burk has devoted her professional life to fighting gender discrimination. These stories of Augusta National's grass ceiling resonated deeply with her. Four days later Burk was plopped in front of the TV at her son's home, studying the final round of the Masters. At one point she turned to her daughter-in-law Kim and said, "You know, I found out that this club discriminates against women. And we're going to change that."
Later in the telecast, Hootie Johnson appeared, to conduct the awkward ceremony in which the Masters champion is presented with a green jacket, the iconic symbol of Augusta National membership. Burk got a hoot out of Johnson's drawl, which is thicker than U.S. Open rough. Adopting an over-the-top southern accent, she said, "Hootie Johnson, ah'm a-gonna wraaaht yew uh letter!"
In late April the NCWO's all-female executive committee convened for its bimonthly meeting. Near the end of the session Burk said, "By the way, I learned about this golf club that doesn't allow women members. Why don't we write them a letter?" The women murmured their assent. As Burk would later say, "It was such a small deal we didn't even vote on it." Letter writing is a common practice of the NCWO, designed to create dialogue, apply pressure, or both. Burk and her organization write a handful of such letters every month.
In the weeks after her executive committee meeting Burk pecked out a draft of a letter to the chairman of Augusta National and circulated it for comment. "People helped tweak it -- a word here, a word there," she says. The finished letter was dated June 12. A full two months had passed since the Masters. "My best guess is that we sent it registered mail," Burk says. "I'm sure it wasn't overnight, because we don't like to spend that kind of money. There certainly wasn't any sense of urgency, which should be obvious because it took me a while to get it done."
The scarlet letter ran exactly nine sentences:
The National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO) is the nation's oldest and largest coalition of women's groups. Our 160 member organizations represent women from all socioeconomic and demographic groups, and collectively represent over seven million women nationwide.
Our member groups are very concerned that the nation's premier golf event, the Masters, is hosted by a club that discriminates against women by excluding them from membership. While we understand that there is no written policy barring women, Augusta National's record speaks for itself. As you know, no woman has been invited to join since the club was formed in 1932.
We know that Augusta National and the sponsors of the Masters do not want to be viewed as entities that tolerate discrimination against any group, including women. We urge you to review your policies and practices in this regard, and open your membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year.
Our leadership would be pleased to discuss this matter with you personally or by telephone. I will contact you in the next few weeks.
In hindsight, Burk says, "I regret only one line in the letter. Where I wrote 'so this is not an issue next year,' in my mind, I meant 'as it already has become this year.' I wish I had completed the sentence on paper. But I think it's important to point out that I was accused of putting a deadline on this, which you will see is inaccurate if you read the letter carefully."
Weeks went by without a word from Johnson. Burk was hardly put out. Her letters often engendered blow-off form replies, or no response at all. "I have always assumed the reason we didn't hear from Hootie right away was because he doesn't read the mail every day," Burk says. "I never thought he was down there plotting an offensive."
A couple of days after receiving Burk's letter, Johnson had lunch in his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, with his friend and mentor Bob McNair, the former governor of the Palmetto State. They have known each other since the late 1950s, when Johnson was a callow twenty-five-year-old who had been talked into running for a seat in South Carolina's House of Representatives, and McNair, an older, wiser member, took him under his wing. "We didn't talk about it at length, but Hootie did mention that he had received this letter and he intended to put the matter to rest," says McNair. "His thing was that he wanted to make his case clear. He didn't want to crack the door for further debate. Looking back now, it's worth a chuckle, but at the time Hootie didn't anticipate much of a public reaction." McNair's avuncular advice, shaped by a lifetime of public service, was not to underestimate the power of a determined activist.
Johnson continued to stew on Burk's letter, chatting up his best friend and frequent hunting companion Hugh McColl, a fellow Augusta National member. Johnson's foray into politics had been brief; after one two-year term as a state representative, he dedicated his professional life to growing his daddy's small-town bank. Johnson would turn Bankers Trust into a southeastern power, and in 1985 he merged it with McColl's North Carolina NationsBank. A series of further mergers, some of them bloody, made Johnson a multimillionaire and left him as the chairman of the executive committee of the country's biggest financial institution, Bank of America, with McColl entrenched as its CEO. Though Johnson would be described by The Charlotte Observer as McColl's "hatchet man," theirs has always been a relationship of mutual respect. "Hootie is my closest friend in the world," says McColl. "If he asks a question, I give him an answer. We have a saying: I have an opinion unencumbered by the facts."
McColl declines to discuss the specifics of his advice on how to handle Burk's letter, but it's not hard to guess its tenor. Through the years McColl has been described by Fortune variously as a "combative," "bombastic," "pugnacious" "scorched earth operator," not to mention "a ruthless taskmaster who chews up everything in his path." Time chimed in too, calling him "a tiny stick of dynamite...with a big mouth and a short fuse." And if Johnson ever needed a military analogy -- involving, say, a bayonet -- he could certainly count on it to be supplied by McColl, a former Marine who kept a crystal grenade on his desk and who once celebrated a business victory by reenacting the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima with some of his loyal boardroom lieutenants.
Johnson sought further opinions on how to proceed from his kitchen cabinet of fellow members. As a kingmaker in South Carolina politics, Johnson had earned a reputation as a fearless visionary who was "stubborn as a mule," according to a man he helped elect to South Carolina's General Assembly, I. S. Leevy Johnson. But Hootie's indecisiveness on how to handle Burk can be traced to a public relations fiasco from the previous year. One of the most treasured perks of winning the Masters has always been the lifetime invitation to play in the tournament, and the fossilized past champs have long been a beloved part of the Masters firmament, even as they struggle to break 90. In May 2001, Johnson ordered a bluntly worded letter to be sent to a handful of past champions, strongly encouraging them to hang up their spikes so as to spare the Masters their ragged play. The insult to these proud men was later codified, as the Masters set an age limit of sixty-five for its participants. The revocation of the lifetime exemption led to howls of protest among the players and sharp criticism in the press, as much for the unfeeling manner in which it was handled as for the merits of the decision. Thus chastised, Johnson proceeded with caution after receiving Burk's letter.
"People think this was a knee-jerk reaction," says an Augusta National employee, "but the Chairman spent three weeks carefully deliberating a response." (Like Sinatra and Mao, Johnson is referred to as the Chairman by his supplicants.) At the urging of his inner circle, Johnson agreed that the club should seek the counsel of a Washington, D.C., public relations consultant who moved in the same circles as Burk and was familiar with the politics of protest. After some fishing around, the consultant rendered his verdict: Burk was deemed "an attack activist," says the club insider. "The recommendation was that we fight back, that we set the agenda on the debate."
As June melted into July, Johnson pecked out a draft of a press release, aided by the consultant. It was then circulated among his camp for comment and further tweaking. The final version ran to three pages and would be e-mailed to eighty media outlets across the country. Its tone was somewhere between defiant and foaming-at-the-mouth rabid:
We have been contacted by Martha Burk, Chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), and strongly urged to radically change our membership. We want the American public to be aware of this action right from the beginning. We have advised Dr. Burk that we do not intend to participate in such backroom discussions.
We take our membership very seriously. It is the very fabric of our club. Our members are people who enjoy each other's company and the game of golf. Our membership alone decides our membership -- not any outside group with its own agenda.
Dr. Burk's letter incorporates a deadline tied to the Masters and refers to sponsors of the tournament's telecast. These references make it abundantly clear that Augusta National Golf Club is being threatened with a public campaign designed to use economic pressure to achieve a goal of [the] NCWO.
Augusta National and the Masters -- while happily entwined -- are quite different. One is a private club. The other is a world-class sports event of great public interest. It is insidious to attempt to use one to alter the essence of the other. The essence of a private club is privacy. Nevertheless, the threatening tone of Dr. Burk's letter signals the probability of a full-scale effort to force Augusta National to yield to the] NCWO's will.
We expect such a campaign would attempt to depict the members of our club as insensitive bigots and coerce the sponsors of the Masters to disassociate themselves under threat -- real or implied -- of boycotts and other economic pressures.
We might see "celebrity" interviews and talk show guests discussing the "morality" of private clubs. We could also anticipate op-ed articles and editorials.
There could be attempts at direct contact with board members of sponsoring corporations and inflammatory mailings to stockholders and investment institutions. We might see everything from picketing and boycotts to t-shirts and bumper stickers. On the internet, there could be active chat rooms and email messaging. These are all elements of such campaigns.
We certainly hope none of that happens. However, the message delivered to us was clearly coercive.
We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated.
We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case.
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.
July 9, 2002, was a quiet Tuesday around the NCWO headquarters. When a FedEx deliveryman came knocking, Burk signed for a slender package herself and immediately popped it open. Inside was a letter on Augusta National letterhead, in which Johnson had dashed off a pithy three sentences to Burk: "As you are aware, Augusta National Golf Club is a distinctly private club and, as such, cannot talk about its membership and practices with those outside the organization. I have found your letter's several references to discrimination, allusions to the sponsors and your setting of deadlines to be both offensive and coercive. I hope you understand why any further communication between us would not be productive."
Says Burk, "I thought the tone was pretty cold, but I put the letter aside. It didn't make a strong impression because we sometimes get dismissive responses like that. But not ten minutes after getting the letter, my phone rang. It was the first reporter calling, about the press release that had just been issued by the club. I had no idea what he was talking about. The timing was such that I have often wondered if Hootie was tracking the FedEx, ensuring that it was delivered before he unleashed his statement to the world."
The reporter on the other end of the phone line was Doug Ferguson, the industrious golf writer for the Associated Press. When Burk pleaded ignorance, Ferguson faxed her Johnson's statement.
"The response is insensitive at best and confrontational at worst," Burk told Ferguson. "I and my groups are making a good-faith effort to urge the club to be fair, to not discriminate against women and basically to come into the twenty-first century. We were trying the olive-branch approach, but he's unwilling to talk."
Burk went on to say that the NCWO's next step would be to contact the Masters' corporate sponsors. "I hope they'll respond positively," she said, in what sounded like a warning. As for Johnson's excruciatingly detailed forecast of a public campaign against the club, Burk said, slyly, "He's certainly given us a good blueprint."
Before the day was out, Johnson's defiance and Burk's resolve were burning up the AP wire. The battle had been joined for the soul of Augusta National.
Copyright © 2004 by Alan Shipnuck