Johnson: No female member before Masters
by Doug Ferguson
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP)?
A green jacket was draped over Hootie Johnson's broad shoulders and the hint of a smile played above his square jaw as he spoke. The chairman of Augusta National hardly looked like someone who felt threatened, even at the point of a bayonet.
As controversy over the all-male membership at the home of the Masters swirled well beyond its green gates, the 71-year-old Johnson was as defiant as ever.
The Masters will be played the second week in April, no matter what, he said, and there is no chance a woman will be a club member by then.
"We have no timetable on the woman member," Johnson said during an hour-long interview Nov. 4. "Our club has enjoyed a camaraderie and a closeness that's served us well for so long, that it makes it difficult for us to consider change.
"A woman may be a member of this club one day, but that is out in the future."
Johnson's comments were the first on the subject since he fueled the debate with a three-page statement that defended the club's right to privacy, and criticized Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations for trying to coerce change.
He said in his July 9 letter that Augusta National may some day have a female member, "but not at the point of a bayonet," which has become a slogan of his resolve.
Johnson spoke from his second-floor office, whose walls bear a photo of him and former chairman Clifford Roberts and an original portrait of Bobby Jones painted by President Eisenhower.
He was as unyielding as ever, offering the kind of assurances usually reserved for death, taxes and whether Tiger Woods has the game to contend for a fourth Masters title.
"There will always be a Masters," he said. "We will prevail because we're right."
He was adamant in his stance that Augusta National would not cave in to the demands of Burk or anyone else who dares to challenge the constitutional rights of a private club to associate with whomever it wants.
"This woman portrays us as being discriminatory and being bigots. And we're not," Johnson said. "We're a private club. And private organizations are good. The Boy Scouts. The Girl Scouts. Junior League. Sororities. Fraternities. Are these immoral? See, we are in good company as a single-gender organization."
He sees no connection between racial and gender discrimination.
"Do you know of any constitutional lawyer that's ever said they were the same? Do you know any civil rights activists that said it was the same? It's not relevant," he said. "Nobody accepts them as being the same."
Burk doesn't buy Johnson's argument, and she speculated that he spoke out because, "He must be feeling additional pressure from inside the club, PGA Tour sponsors or the players."
"I had sincerely and genuinely hoped it could be settled, and I still hope so," she said. "Hopefully, this is Hootie's last hurrah, and there still may be some pressure outside the club to make this change. That might be the case, or he wouldn't have called this interview to make points he has made in the past."
Augusta National opened in 1933, the vision of Roberts, a Wall Street investment banker, and Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur ever.
The Masters was created in 1934 and has evolved into the most famous of golf's four major championships, the only one played on the same course.
Johnson, a retired banker, was 4 when he attended his first Masters in 1935. He was invited to join Augusta National in 1968, and was elected chairman 30 years later.
He is said to have worked behind the scenes to get the first black admitted to the club in 1990, shortly after the all-white membership controversy at Shoal Creek in Alabama.
Augusta National allows women to play its golf course without restrictions. Women played more than 1,000 rounds last year, and Johnson invited the University of South Carolina women's golf team as his guest.
So, what's wrong with having one as a member?
"We just don't choose to do that at this time," he said.
Johnson said Burk's letter hasn't had any effect on the club's decision to invite a woman to join.
Still, the chairman clearly is annoyed by Burk's campaign. He never mentioned her by name, three times referring to her only as "this woman" or "that woman."
Asked if he had any regrets about his response to Burk - three sentences vs. three pages to the media - Johnson smiled: "I seldom have any regrets. I don't look back much."
Then he turned serious and added: "I regret that she threatened us. And I regret that she threatened our sponsors."
Johnson dismissed the only TV sponsors of the Masters - Citigroup, Coca-Cola and IBM - after Burk challenged them to live up to their own policies against sex discrimination.
That will make next year's Masters, which already gets the highest ratings among golf tournaments, the first commercial-free sporting event on network TV.
Can the Masters survive financially without sponsors for more than one year?
"We could go indefinitely," Johnson said. "But I don't think we'll have to. We'll have our sponsors back. I just believe that we're right on this issue, and that they'll be comfortable in sponsoring the Masters Tournament."
If some view this controversy as having the potential to mar the crown jewel of golf, Johnson certainly doesn't.
"The majority of Americans are with us on this issue," he said, leaning back in his leather chair. "I want you to know that."
How can he be so sure?
"I just know it," Johnson said. "I know it by the response I get here."
He reached for a letter and newspaper clipping on the coffee table, a poll from the Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligencer Journal, that asked readers to call in their vote on whether Augusta should admit women. Of 624 callers, 90 percent said no.
On his desk were four files, each one bulging with letters he said supported Augusta National and its rights as a private club.
Johnson said he has read and responded to each one.
"I don't think we've been damaged," he said.
The only time Johnson's voice was tinged with agitation was when he wondered why his club should be penalized "for presenting something that's good for the game of golf?"
"Something that 150 million watch around the world? Something that's a harbinger of spring? Something that is respected worldwide? We're going to be penalized for that?"
Burk has challenged several high-profile members of Augusta National to own up to their public stand against discrimination.
Lloyd Ward, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and one of only a half-dozen black members at Augusta, said he would work for change from inside the club. American Express chairman Kenneth Chenault, another black member, also said he believed there should be female members.
That violates a cardinal rule at Augusta. The club traditionally speaks with one voice - Johnson's.
"I'm not going to talk about members," he said, cutting off a question about comments from executives like Ward and Chenault. "We'll handle that internally."
Johnson did not appear to be concerned, nor did he think the debate would steal headlines from Woods going after a record third straight Masters title.
Meantime, Augusta National carries on behind the tall gates that seclude Magnolia Lane and its stately clubhouse from the rest of the world.
Several members played in a cool drizzle on this day, some of them taking along caddies dressed in the club's traditional white coveralls.
Among the items for sale in the Augusta National pro shop was a navy blue cap with "2003 Masters" stitched in white. Merchandise with a message.