Friday, March 12, 2004

Martha Burk and her crusade against the men-only membership policy of Augusta National Golf Club have faded into relative obscurity.

Mrs. Burk, chairwoman of the D.C.-based National Council of Women’s Organizations, made guest appearances on every major network in the months preceding last year’s Masters, railing against both the prestigious club and its intractable chairman, Hootie Johnson.

She was a regular on the front pages of the nation’s most influential newspapers — particularly in the New York Times, which featured her in 102 stories through last April. And though her message ultimately did not resonate with the American public, precious few could claim they didn’t hear it.

A year later, as Augusta National prepares for next month’s 68th Masters, Mrs. Burk and her crusade have largely disappeared from newspapers and TV news shows.

“As of right now, I don’t plan on returning [to protest this year’s tournament],” Mrs. Burk said in a recent interview with The Washington Times. “Last year, we were put down there in a police-state atmosphere on a piece of club land that was well away from the main gates.”

Mrs. Burk’s protest drew far fewer participants than she had hoped. Only 40 persons joined her at last year’s anti-Augusta National rally, despite the extraordinary blanket of publicity the event had received.

Mrs. Burk says she does not consider the event a failure, but Augusta National media consultant Jim McCarthy summed up the protest, and perhaps the entire episode, in two sentences:

“It seems obvious to me that her credibility has been shattered,” Mr. McCarthy told a media contingent that easily outnumbered its subjects. “Her whole campaign was premised on widespread support, and she delivered an embarrassingly small number.”

In the face of such public indifference, virtually every media outlet immediately abandoned coverage of the issue.

Mrs. Burk has rated only 11 mentions in the New York Times in the 11 months since the dud rally — a sea change in coverage of an issue that last year was so heavy that the newspaper’s ombudsman, Daniel Okrent, recently described it in the New York Observer as “a humiliation for the newspaper.”

Mrs. Burk was mentioned in 4,424 stories in major U.S. newspapers and magazines between Sept.1, 2002, and March1, 2003. The massive coverage of Mrs. Burk and her cause has practically disappeared: She was mentioned in 162 stories between Sept.1 and March1.

Despite the setbacks, Mrs. Burk says she isn’t giving up her fight against Augusta National.

“I don’t care whether it’s a dead issue or not in the media,” Mrs. Burk said. “It’s not a dead issue with women, and it’s not a dead issue with corporate America. … We have made inroads.

“[The Masters] doesn’t have any sponsors again this year [for the tournament broadcast]. And they had to raise ticket prices by 40 percent. Their stance is costing them money. And the fact is, corporate America is reticent to jump back on their bandwagon.”

However, the club never forced corporate America to leap off. In order to protect the tournament’s primary sponsors (Coca-Cola, Citigroup and IBM) from criticism, Mr. Johnson announced in June that for the second consecutive year this season’s Masters would be broadcast without commercials.

“There were many aspects of last year’s broadcast that were favorable,” Mr. Johnson said in a news release. “The response from our TV viewers about the ability to watch strictly golf was very positive.”

Thus CBS, which reportedly is being charged a reduced-rights fee and is receiving production-cost assistance from Augusta National, will broadcast 71/2 hours of live, uninterrupted weekend coverage at the tournament from April8 to 11. According to Johnson, the club’s finances are so strong that the commercial-free arrangement could continue in perpetuity.

The club did increase the price of the tournament’s weekly series badges from $125 to $175, the largest increase in the event’s history. However, the waiting list for those tickets is closed, and the asking price for the badges on EBay ranges from $2,500 to $3,000.

Corporate hospitality in and around Augusta for this year’s Masters also is posting a strong resurgence. After a significant cutback last year — owing not only to Mrs. Burk but a lagging economy and the war in Iraq — companies both big and small again are quickly reserving accommodations, high-end meals and entertainment for key executives and clients.

“This looks like it’s going to be a very good year for us,” said Rob Williams, owner of Roux’s Gourmet Catering, which runs corporate hospitality tents just beyond the grounds of Augusta National. “Pretty much everybody I’ve talked to around town — other caterers, hotels and so forth — they’re all booked and have been for some time.”

Mr. Johnson and Augusta National’s 300 greencoats appear to have successfully weathered last year’s storm. The media is fixated on a new Martha. Meanwhile, Hootie’s still standing, and there’s still only one Masters.

• Eric Fisher contributed to this report.

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