- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2002

Martha Burk believes the white-hot attention on the membership policies of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, is too much.
"Is this our biggest issue? Absolutely not," said Ms. Burk, the chairman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, or NCWO. "NCWO is very concerned with and working very hard on getting the women's human rights treaty ratified in the U.S. Senate right now. I would kill for this kind of coverage on our other issues."
The NCWO, an umbrella group of more than 150 women's organizations, is lobbying Augusta National and its chairman, Hootie Johnson, to accept its first female. The issue has been widely written about and discussed on talk shows. It has dominated press conferences at professional golf events and put the world's most famous athlete, Tiger Woods, on the spot.
"A women's human rights treaty is not as sexy as Hootie Johnson running around and having tirades on the back nine," Ms. Burk said.
Ms. Burk and Augusta National have been fighting for months. Ms. Burk requested in June in a private letter that the club review its membership procedures and admit women. Mr. Johnson fired back publicly in July, angrily writing that the club's membership policies would not be dictated by an outside group. The private club does not permit applications, and membership is by invitation only.
"There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet," Mr. Johnson wrote. Female guests and spouses of members are allowed to play Augusta.
Mr. Johnson made a surprise move Friday, telling Citigroup, Coca-Cola and IBM, the only three companies allowed to purchase TV time during the Masters, that their support would not be needed in 2003. As a result, the tournament will be free of ads next year.
"We are sorry, but not surprised, to see these corporations drawn into this matter," Mr. Johnson said. "Augusta National is NCWO's true target. It is therefore unfair to the put the Masters' media sponsors in the position of having to deal with this pressure."
Ms. Burke said yesterday she believed the action was pre-emptive.
"I don't think he cut off [the sponsors]. I think they said, 'We quit.' And he said, 'No, you're fired,'" she said. "We've been in touch with the sponsors for over a month and with the exception of IBM, we were getting pretty positive feedback. Not that anyone explicitly said they would pull their sponsorship, but those were the vibes we were getting. So for him to pretend that this was his idea and that a discussion with the sponsors had not already taken place is disingenuous."
Ms. Burk said this week that she next would pressure professional players as well as CBS, which has televised the event since 1956. She said yesterday that she also would target individual members of Augusta.
"Some of them are [heads of] very high-profile corporations, and those corporations have an image they want to maintain," she said. "And indeed they have policies against sex discrimination, and being members of clubs that allow discrimination is not a very good image for CEOs."
Ms. Burk is a political psychologist who holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington. She has been active in women's groups for more than three decades and became chairman of the NCWO in 2000.
Feelings on the debate among women's groups range from rock-solid support of Ms. Burk to indifference and opposition.
"NOW is an active member of the NCWO and fully in support of their mission," said National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy. "I was very surprised by the over-the-top response by Augusta National. I saw the letter before Martha sent it, and I thought it appealed to their sense of morality and simple spirit. I think it's safe to say that most women's groups are in line with it."
Other groups oppose Ms. Burk's efforts.
"I'm disgusted with the practices of Martha Burk and the NCWO. It's the kind of political pressure that is ultimately futile," said Christine Stolba, a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum in Arlington, a conservative organization not affiliated with Ms. Burk's. "They are a private organization. Bullying tactics are not effective."
The flap, however uncomfortable for Augusta National and CBS, promises to be a boon to golf fans. The event, already one of the most tightly controlled in televised sports, will drop from four minutes of advertising per hour to zero. The average ad content for a televised sports event is about 16 minutes per hour.
"There were only the four minutes an hour to start with, so the change for the viewer will not be drastic at all," said CBS spokeswoman LeslieAnne Wade. "This is the single most watched event in golf each year. We do not expect that to change."
The Masters drew an average U.S. TV audience of 11.4 million people this year. That was a drop of 24 percent from 2001, but the event remained the most watched in golf. In some years, the Masters TV audience is larger than that of the PGA Championship and British Open combined, two other of golf's four major championships.
Industry sources, however, did say the removal of advertisers will alter Augusta's finances for 2003. Augusta is not expected to not seek a rights fee from CBS next year. The two parties have worked together for 43 years on a series of one-year contracts, details of which are jealously guarded. CBS gets the broadcast rights for an unspecified eight-figure sum. It receives ad fees from the three companies but only breaks even or makes a small profit on the investment. The payback, ideally, comes later in the form of prestige and increased ratings for other CBS programming.


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