Should women be allowed to join the nation’s most elite golf club?

EACH APRIL, the world’s top golfers arrive on the lawns of the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia to compete for the Masters championship. But players could face a new hazard on the course next spring–protesters. A growing campaign against Augusta’s men-only membership policy may bring public demonstrations to the intensely private 70-year-old club.

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Augusta has 300 members, and it has never accepted a woman. Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, wrote to the club president, William “Hootie” Johnson, last spring, urging him to change that policy.

Johnson replied that Augusta would never be “bullied” into having a female member. He insists that the club has the right to determine its membership as it sees fit and that the law is on his side.

But Burk hasn’t dropped her campaign. And if the club cannot resolve the issue before the next Masters event in April, it could face protests.

A Matter of Course

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Augusta’s supporters say there’s nothing wrong with all-male or all-female private clubs.

“Private clubs should be allowed to be private,” says Charles Robson, a pro golf tour official. “It’s very similar to a fraternity or sorority. We happen to be a fraternity. I think it would be great if there was a women’s club across the street.”

Tiger Woods has won three Masters titles. Critics insist that Woods has the clout to bring change to the club, but he has resisted getting involved in the membership dispute.

“Is it unfair? Yes. Do I want to see a female member? Yes,” Woods said last month. “But it’s our right to have any club set up the way we want to.”

Burk hasn’t won the support of all top female golfers either. Nancy Lopez, one of the best female golfers ever, doesn’t believe Augusta is sexist and points out that women regularly play there as guests. “I have always respected the tradition at Augusta. I don’t feel like there’s discriminationthere.”

Time for a Change

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Some Augusta members do think it’s time to accept women. Lloyd Ward, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), says he’s trying to change Augusta. Next month, the USOC’s directors may force him to give up his club membership because of its policies.

Women’s groups complain that clubs like Augusta give men an unfair advantage in business, since so many deals are negotiated on courses that bar female executives. “It hurts women not to have access to those networks,” said Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women. “If the heads of these major corporations find it advantageous to be there, why is it that we have to keep women out? Do we not ever want women to be at the top of the heap?”

Does Augusta have the right to keep women out? Why or why not?

Get Talking

Ask students: Have they ever watched the Masters Golf Tournament on television? Do they know that the Masters is always held at the same place: Augusta National Golf Course? Did they know that membership in the club that runs Augusta National is limited to men only? Now that they know, do they think that is right? Do they think excluding women is legal? (Point out that it is legal, as Augusta National Golf Club is a private club.)

Background

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Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), represents ll0 U.S. women’s groups, and has unleashed an all out attack on Augusta National. She is matched by William “Hootie” Johnson, the combative chairman of Augusta National. In June, Burk the battle with a letter to Johnson demanding that the club open its doors to women.

“Our member groups are very concerned that the nation’s premier gold event, the Masters, is hosted by a club that discriminates against women by excluding them from membership,” wrote Burk in part. “We know that Augusta National and the sponsors of the Masters do not want to be viewed as entities that tolerate discrimination against any group, including women. We urge you to review your policies and practices in this regard, and open your membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year.”

Johnson wrote back to Burk in July, saying he found her letter to be “both offensive and coercive.” He added that the club would not be “bullied, threatened or intimidated” by Burk or anyone else. And that is pretty much where the matter now stands.

* National Organization for Women (NOW).

Founded in 1966, NOW is the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States today, with 500,000 contributing members and chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. NOW’s stated goal is to “take action” to bring about equality for women. In order to achieve that goal, NOW has organized mass marches, rallies, and picket lines.

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