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Hootie & the Blowhards

Augusta National needs to do the right thing

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Augusta National Golf Club would do well to follow the adage popularized by filmmaker Spike Lee and "Do the right thing."That, Mr. Club Chairman, William (Hootie) Johnson, will stop the letters from coming and cease the drumbeat of calls for Augusta National, site of the Masters, to open its doors to female members.

And it would have precluded the conniption fit Johnson threw recently in reaction to the National Council of Women's Organization's (NCWO) modest call for the club to quit discriminating. Apparently the NCWO's letter sent him over the edge. Perhaps it was that time of the month. Johnson fired back publicly about putting Augusta National "at the point of a bayonet" and that the club didn't intend to become "a trophy in their (NCWO's) display case."

Hmm. I didn't know the NCWO had a trophy case, much less a bayonet. Its membership of more than 160 women's organizations represents about seven million women nationally. Ending gender discrimination in all walks of life is what the group is about. Johnson even gives the NCWO credit for work on behalf of Social Security, reproductive health, spousal abuse and other issues. "Puzzled" is how he describes his reaction to the NCWO's request.

He's not puzzled. Augusta National didn't invite an African American to join until 1990, when sponsors began pulling out of golf tournaments at clubs that discriminated against blacks. The pivotal situation was the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, AL in 1990, which lost about $2 million in TV ad revenue from IBM, Honda, Toyota and Sharp Electronics. Augusta National admitted its first black member later the same year. Today, Augusta National has a half-dozen or fewer black members out of approximately 300, and one of them, Lloyd Ward, CEO of the US Olympic Committee, has been chided by fellow members for saying he planned to work to admit women.

So, why do the men of Augusta National -- which includes billionaire investor Warren Buffet, former AT&T chairman Robert Allen, former Secretary of State George Shultz, IBM chairman Lou Gerstner and former General Electric chairman Jack Welch -- want to socialize only among themselves and exclude women? Beats me, unless they're uncomfortable with women as peers. Now I'm puzzled, Mr. Johnson. By the way, does your calendar say 2002 or 1902?

Augusta National lets women play as guests and has contributed substantial sums to promote women and minorities in golf, but that doesn't let the club off the hook. And it doesn't mean a women's group shouldn't ask the club to review its policies or that such a request should slow the effort for change. If women had to depend solely on the kindness of men to attain full equality in this society they might still be the legal property of their husband or father.

The right thing is the right thing, and it's time for Augusta National to rip down its "Boys Only" sign. The same is true for the British Open, which just concluded and whose sponsoring club (the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) has had no female members since its founding in 1744. Augusta National, by the way, opened in 1932 and the Masters began two years later.

Here's how the Hootie hubbub started: After receiving a friendly but firm letter from the NCWO -- one that ended by requesting that they talk -- Johnson replied in a three-sentence letter that private organizations such as Augusta National can do what they please regarding membership and that "further communication between us would not be productive."

Apparently Johnson planned on talking all right, just not to the NCWO. He went on the offensive publicly, releasing a lengthy statement that was dazzling in its defensiveness and likely intended to deflect heat from the event's three major sponsors, IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup -- which, ironically, all have nondiscrimination policies and promote diversity as a major corporate goal.

Johnson's lightning bolts were on behalf of his two key audiences -- his stuck-in-the-mud club membership and the big-buck businesses contributing to the wealth of this private, discriminatory club. The Masters is owned and run by Augusta National, not the PGA Tour, whose policies prevent it from holding events at clubs that discriminate against women.

Johnson may be exalted by his members and sponsors as a sacrificial lamb, but he won't be their savior. He's made their cause worse. Rather than letting the NCWO's request languish for lack of attention, or even meeting with the group only to do nothing (a tried-and-true stalling tactic), Johnson raised the stakes by providing a media feeding frenzy. I won't be surprised if his tactic ultimately exerts more pressure on the sponsors and leads to boycotts and pickets -- something Johnson even suggested in his overblown public statement, as if to say, "Poor me, these women are coming after us."

Yeah, you may be right, especially after turning Augusta National into Hootie and the Blowhards.

The bottom line is this: Nothing but a policy change can save Augusta National from being wrong on this issue. Plus, do big consumer companies such as Coke and IBM really want to pour millions into the coffers of a discriminatory organization?

Perhaps Charlotte's Dana Rader, one of the top golf instructors in the country, sums it up best: "As a private club, Augusta National is within its right to do what it wants. But I've always thought it was wrong that because you were a woman you weren't welcome as a member. I have a hard time understanding how one race or one gender is better than another. God created all men equally -- meaning all men in the broad perspective." (No pun intended.)

Overtime

Looking at the Augusta National issue, Charlotte Observer sports writer Ron Green Jr. decided to give Hootie and the Blowhards cover by focusing on the club's private status and its progress in being more inclusive. The greater good of ending membership discrimination took a back seat. The Observer's Fannie Flono eloquently moved that point to the front seat, but sadly, her column ran several days later on the editorial page. It would have been better running on the sports page as a counterpoint to Green's take on the subject.Speaking of misplaced stories, did anyone find it strange and trivializing to find Charlotte Sting Coach Anne Donovan being interviewed about her family, height and wardrobe and not about the Sting in the daily's sports section (July 14)? The Q&A contained some human interest information that belonged either in a comprehensive story on her as the Sting coach or, as is, in the feature section. A sports story it wasn't.

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