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Published: Monday, 4/7/2003

Will Woods be under par with Augusta under siege?

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

AUGUSTA, Ga. - It is, according to CBS-TV promotions, “a tradition unlike any other.”

But this will be a Masters unlike any other.

No, Tiger Woods won't be the first golfer to pursue a third straight title at Augusta National.

And, no, this won't be the first time they've teed it up between the azaleas and magnolias with American troops fighting in a faraway land.

But it will be the first time anyone can recall the Masters being contested amid protests and picket lines.

Martha Burk, a women's rights advocate who heads the National Council of Women's Organizations, is going head-to-head with Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson over the club's male-only membership practice.

She wrote Johnson a private letter a year ago and got an unexpected and inexplicable public broadside in return.

The headlines followed and battle lines have been drawn.

Burke says her group has toned down its original protest plans because of the war in Iraq and will demonstrate only on Saturday, sharing the sports world's stage with the third round of the Masters.

But Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH coalition will also be around in support of the women's rights group. A splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan is expected to be on hand to lend unwanted support for Augusta National. Who knows who else will show up with what agendas?

It should be calm inside the gates, but the golfers know the off-course activity is all many will be focusing on, at least until the back nine on Sunday if Woods is, as expected, in the thick of things.

Woods, who has earned the Masters' green jacket three times in the last six years, was asked recently if his Augusta routine would change this time.

“Yeah, definitely. I think Hootie is helping all the players with parachutes and stuff like that to get in,” Tiger joked, albeit with a straight face. “Isn't that the only way to get in? You've just got to sky-dive in there.”

Well, it won't be that bad.

But it will certainly be a different atmosphere, one that is far from flattering to the host club and one that is bound to rub off on America's most popular tournament.

“I think it has tarnished it for this year,” Woods said. “If you go back to when the [race] rules were being changed, back when Charlie [Sifford] was trying to qualify for the Masters back in the '60s and '70s, I think a lot of people would have said that would tarnish the Masters. But did it? I don't think it did and, over the long run, I don't think this will either. It does this year but I think it will eventually go away and it will be resolved and Augusta and the Masters will be what it is.”

The rule Woods referred to was the PGA Tour's Caucasian-only policy that existed until the late 1960s. The Masters' color barrier fell when Lee Elder qualified in 1975.

But race was still an issue in golf when the 1990 PGA Championship was played at Shoal Creek, an Alabama club that excluded blacks from its membership roll. The turmoil that arose from that tournament pressured clubs that hosted tour events and major championships to open their doors.

It may be someone else's fight now, but many have paralleled this Masters to that PGA Championship.

“I don't think it feels any different,” said Davis Love III. “I mean, we're not members of any of these clubs. We're going to play golf, raise money for charity and play our game.

“You know, I think it's not really an issue for the players. It's an issue for the clubs and for privacy and for people who want to protest and argue what's fair and what isn't fair. I think it's very similar to what we went through [at Shoal Creek]. It's disappointing that it might affect the tournament, but I understand. Where else would you want to protest? Wherever Tiger Woods is will get the most attention.”

That will certainly be the case this week.

When Woods won the 2001 Masters by two shots over David Duval it capped the so-called Tiger Slam, making him the first-ever reigning champion of all four majors.

And when he repeated last April with a three-shot triumph over Retief Goosen it made him only the third player ever to successfully defend his title at Augusta.

Jack Nicklaus did it in 1965-66 and Nick Faldo doubled up in 1989-90.

Neither, however, managed a three-peat.

“To be a part of something, to have a shot at something that no one has ever done, ever, that's really cool,” Woods said.

Tiger takes his shot this week, inside the gates.

Outside, the KKK splinter group will protest under the leadership of an imperial wizard, or some such title, who claims that Tiger Woods is his favorite golfer.

“Ironic,” Tiger said with a laugh.

“That's as ironic as it gets.”



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