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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

Hootie the real master at Augusta National

AUGUSTA, Ga. - If you were expecting the olive branch of conciliation, if you were expecting a shaky, wishy-washy performance from a ruler under siege, if you were expecting Hootie Johnson to show up for his annual Masters press conference yesterday with a woman on each arm, an iced pitcher of sweet tea and a jaw-dropping announcement, well, you would be sorely disappointed.

Instead, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club pronounced that the addition of a female member is not imminent, even over his dead body.

Really.

“If I drop dead right now, this second, our position will not change on this issue,” Johnson said. “I promise you that. It is not my issue alone.”

So we have this message for Martha Burk, the women's rights advocate who will buzz into town later this week like the proverbial hornets' nest:

Regardless of your tactics, of your appeals to corporate giants, of your threats to sponsors and advertisers, your fight against this single-gender bastion of wealthy, powerful men will not be easily won.

Bluntly, the men in green jackets could not care less about you or your organization or your desires.

How could it be otherwise? These guys are not easily pushed around.

They include the CEOs of Microsoft, American Express and Citigroup, a former senator and three ex-cabinet members. Nine of them, headed by Bill Gates, who is worth an estimated $43 billion, were among Forbes Magazine's 400 richest Americans in 2002. Six of those nine are billionaires.

Hootie isn't among that elite group, but he ain't cashing food stamps over at the Piggly Wiggly, either. He inherited his daddy's business, something called State Bank & Trust, a number of years ago. Through buyouts and mergers and the like, you might know it by its current name, the Bank of America.

As hard as this may be to believe, the 300 or so members of Augusta National are, on average, 78 years old.

So yeah, there is new money. Bundles of the stuff. But a lot of it is old, old money. Old, southern, bourbon-and-branch-water money.

Enough money that when Burk's National Council of Women's Organizations began its assault by going after the Masters' TV sponsors, the club simply announced that it would televise this year's event without the benefit of advertising revenue.

Johnson was asked yesterday how long the National could continue to do that should this issue not disappear for awhile.

“Indefinitely,” was the one-word answer.

So there's your problem, Martha. You're butting heads with folks who believe in their way of life, which is one of privilege and entitlement, and have the U.S. Constitution and bottomless pockets to back it up.

You'll get your 15 minutes of fame, but you have nary a prayer.

Oh, there will be a female member or members at Augusta National someday. Hootie said as much.

However, he added, “I want to emphasize that we have no timetable, and our membership is very comfortable with our present status. The fact is we are a private club. Just because we host a golf tournament [or] because some of our members are well-known should not cause us to be viewed differently. Our club will continue to make its own decisions.”

In other words, when they build a locker room without urinals it will be because club sentiment favors it, not because of Martha Burk, a couple busloads of protesters, liberal columnists or political correctness.

Hootie Johnson and the members of Augusta National - only two of 300 have resigned their memberships over this issue - cannot be intimidated.

But they can be riled up.

That's all Ms. Burk has managed to do. And it may not have been a real smart move when going against the likes of Hootie Johnson.

Dead or alive.



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