- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 13, 2002

William "Hootie" Johnson, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, says he is not threatened by the push of Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations to admit women at the all-male club. His activities this week suggest otherwise.

Johnson, breaking his four-month silence on the gender fight at Augusta National, is conducting a systematic public relations campaign clearly designed to quantify and solidify widespread public support for the club. He began by conducting several one-on-one interviews with media organizations, declaring in each that the club will prevail over the NCWO and that its legal right to set its own membership will remain unchecked.

Step two was an op-ed piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal in which Johnson said Burk has "misrepresented the issue" and that "the notion that Augusta National is an enclave of sexist good old boys is ludicrous."

Step three arrives this morning with the release of a 48-question national poll that predictably will show widespread public support for the private club. In the survey, conducted by a division of the District-based Polling Co., more than 70 percent of the respondents back the club's stance against the NCWO and Augusta National's right to keep its membership all-male if it so chooses.

"I don't believe for a second that 70 percent of the country is in favor of sex discrimination," Burk said. "It's a ridiculous premise."

So what prompted Johnson to speak up finally after denying several hundred media requests for interviews and Burk's pleas for change? Club sources and Johnson himself say once he recovered from recent heart bypass surgery, the frustration of being called a bigot and branded with labels of discrimination by the NCWO finally grew too much to bear.

"When [Burk] throws out 'bigotry' and 'discriminatory' if we're discriminating then all [the] other single-gender organizations are discriminating," Johnson told the Associated Press. "And they're not. It's a terrible thing if they're accused of that also."

Several informal studies and this new poll suggest the bulk of American people support Johnson, but some prominent people, including four Augusta National members, have spoken out in favor of admitting women. It's that division that continues to fuel the debate.

"My guess is that he's under siege and has an internal rebellion on his hands," Burk said earlier this week. "Otherwise, he wouldn't be coming out in such belligerent fashion."

Another round of Johnson news conferences may be conducted before the Masters Tournament in April. Johnson has said there is no chance Augusta National will have a woman member before then.

"From here, it feels like some things are worth defending, and sometimes that means taking a stand," Johnson said. "In my mind and in my heart, I know this is one of them."

The key question going forward, however, is whether any of Johnson's recent activities will make a difference in the ongoing debate. The 2003 Masters is scheduled to go on as planned, even without any commercials during CBS's TV coverage. Also unchanged are Burk's plans to continue pressuring individual Augusta members to admit female members, and a long-discussed protest during Masters week also is more likely than ever, she said. Lobbying against CBS and the PGA Tour also will continue.

"We're not letting anything go," Burk said. "To those members we have written, we're not letting it go with a non-response. We're going to keep at them.

"As for the picketing, we're telling folks who are interested to stay tuned. We're giving people the dates [of next years tournament]. We're obviously taking down contact information. So I still don't think we've heard the last on this."

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