- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Martha Burk stands in the center of the cluttered, one-room office the letterhead for the National Council of Women's Organizations euphemistically describes as Suite 1011. One wall is papered with yellowing clippings of feminist cartoons. On another, a poster reads, "Hey, Hootie, stop acting like a horse's patootie."

Mrs. Burk leans over her schedule on one of the room's two desks and says her assistant is out sick. The moment provides the perfect snapshot of what seems like Mrs. Burk's one-woman crusade against Augusta National Golf Club.

"Why Augusta National? Because they hold the highest profile event in golf in the Masters," said the 61-year-old Mrs. Burk, the chairwoman of the organization that has been mercilessly pressuring the prestigious club and its general chairman, William "Hootie" Johnson, since July because the club has no woman members. "Why now? Because we found out about it now.

"They hold themselves out as a private club while behaving in every way as a public entity. It's the wrong thing to do. We just thought it was the proper thing as a function of the council to call their attention to this and try to get them to change their policy."

The "we" Mrs. Burk refers to is the 160 organizations that belong to the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO). Those groups include the National Abortion Federation, the American College of Nurse-Midwives and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"It's just remarkable that this group finds this to be the most critical issue in need of their attention, making the world safe for 70-year-old female millionaires," said Melana Zyla Vickers, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, an organization that is not a member of the NCWO. "Who is really going to benefit from their efforts?"

"This is not about one millionaire or one woman," said Mrs. Burk, her Texas drawl becoming more noticeable as she becomes more impassioned. "This is about discrimination against women, the majority in the 21st century. It is emblematic of that discrimination."

Mr. Johnson has remained mum on the subject since his memorable first response to Mrs. Burk and the NCWO in July, when he said the club would not be "bullied" into admitting a female member "at the point of a bayonet."

Mrs. Burk responded to Mr. Johnson's silence with a mass-mailing campaign designed to pressure Augusta National's high-profile members to side with her or face the public relations consequences. A handful of those members have broken club protocol, which insists that all matters pertaining to club business be addressed to the chairman, and sided with Mrs. Burk.

The most notable breach of protocol came from Citigroup Chairman Sanford Weill, who offered public support to Mrs. Burk two weeks ago. And two days ago, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) hinted that executive committee member Lloyd Ward was likely to have to choose between his position in the organization and his membership at Augusta National.

"Ward is under intense pressure over this from the USOC, and it's going to be interesting to see what happens with him," Mrs. Burk said. "Hypocrisy and discrimination aren't good for the bottom line, so I think there are quite a few CEOs who are associated with the club in some way who are getting anxious.

"Ward's case is a perfect example. Augusta National could fire him, throw him out. But how would it look to dismiss one of their few black members? They could let him resign, but that wouldn't look good either. Something has to give, though, because I can't imagine anyone choosing a golf club over their job."

Christine Stolba of the Independent Women's Forum (IWF) considers Mrs. Burk's tactics "a strange form of extortion" and questions her motives.

"Not only is Augusta National a private organization which has the right to make its own determination about members, but this is not an issue of particular interest to the vast majority of American women," Miss Stolba said. "This is a frivolous issue which Martha Burk is using as a platform of self-promotion."

Mrs. Burk flatly dismisses Miss Stolba's comments.

"Is the Augusta National issue at the top of our priority list? Of course not," said Mrs. Burk, who says she would accept an invitation to join the club even though she is not a golfer. "If they invited a woman, then I would be able to go back to the situation in Afghanistan, the women's human rights treaty and some of the other issues that consume most of our days.

"It's ludicrous to suggest I'm interested in this issue for the personal exposure. We had no idea this issue would generate the kind of publicity it has when we sent the club a private letter on the matter. As for Christine Stolba, I would ask her to find something to do. The IWF doesn't do anything. They only criticize what we are doing. So if we didn't exist, neither would they, because they don't have any program."

Hall of Fame golfer Nancy Lopez, the most high-profile woman to comment on the subject thus far, sided with tradition and the club's right to autonomy last week. Most folks, it seems, are indifferent.

But Mrs. Burk says that "though a number of people might be indifferent to Augusta National itself, almost nobody is indifferent to discrimination."

That's one reason Mrs. Burk is disappointed that high-profile golfers such as Lopez and Tiger Woods haven't championed her cause. Asked why Woods isn't allowed to just be a person, instead of a black political activist, Mrs. Burk replies: "If [boxer] Joe Louis had said that, Tiger would just be a person all right. He'd be a person in the form of a caddie at Augusta National."

Few others have come to her aid. CBS rejected her demand that it cease to broadcast the Masters. The PGA Tour has said that it will not alter its relationship to the Masters because of the membership issue. Tour sponsors shrugged off Mrs. Burk's plans to pressure them, pointing out that they have no connection to the Masters.

About 15 of Augusta National's nearly 300 members have sided with Mrs. Burk on the issue.

"They say in corporations that if you get one letter, then that often represents 10 to 20 folks who feel the same way," Mrs. Burk said. "So you can't just count the ones who have publicly come out. There are probably quite a few who are on board but have not said so publicly."

During the next six months, that supposed silent support is going to have plenty of opportunity to make itself heard. Because unless Augusta National admits a woman before April, which seems highly unlikely, Mrs. Burk plans to crash next season's first major championship party.

"We'll be there at the Masters if something hasn't been done," says Mrs. Burk, who adds that she will consider picketing and asking players to boycott the event.

But the next step in her plan to break the sex barrier at Augusta National involves applying pressure to the tour and its commissioner, Tim Finchem, through the tour's primary sponsors.

"The PGA Tour is the biggest hypocrite in the mix," Mrs. Burk says. "They have created a loophole for the benefit of Augusta to allow Augusta to continue to discriminate against women and still have their place in the pantheon. That needs to change.

"The PGA Tour says the Masters is not an official part of our tour, but we're going to grant exemptions to the winners, count the money and count the victory. How close can you get to an official PGA Tour event? They certainly recognize it as official, whether they run it or not. It's a double standard that needs to be changed, because it does not reflect well on their sponsors."

Everyone who has ever stepped on a pine needle at Augusta National is under scrutiny, thanks to Mrs. Burk. And at least one longtime member is ready for the whole controversy to disappear.

"I'm just sick of hearing about it," said the member, who agreed to speak to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity. "I'll go with Hootie, but I really wish we'd just go find some woman who was completely unobjectionable and give her a membership. Just go ahead and give that raving banshee her token member."

And that's all Mrs. Burk wants.

"It's not our goal to aggravate Augusta National," Mrs. Burk said. "Our goal is to get the club membership open to women period. Some members of that community would like to characterize us as strident, which we are not. We are, however, resolved. And we all know there's only one way for this story to end. It's just a matter of time."

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