Augusta National golf club chairman rejects pressure from women's group to open membership

Wednesday, July 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The chairman of the golf club that hosts the Masters tournament has spurned a request from a national women's group that the club open its membership to women before next year's tournament.

``Our membership alone decides our membership _ not any outside group with its own agenda,'' Augusta National Golf Club chairman Hootie Johnson said in a statement Tuesday.

The National Council of Women's Organizations, which has about 6 million members from 160 groups, sent a letter to Johnson on June 12 after chairwoman Martha Burk read reports about Augusta National not having women among its 300 members.

``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,'' Burk said in the letter.

In the three-sentence reply Burk received via overnight mail July 3, Johnson said he found the letter to be ``offensive and coercive,'' and that Augusta membership matters are private.

``The response is insensitive at best and confrontational at worst,'' Burk said. ``I and my groups are making a good-faith effort to urge the club to be fair, to not discriminate against women and basically to come into the 21st century.''

Lloyd Ward, the first black CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee and an Augusta member, said during the Masters this spring that he would lobby to broaden the membership to include women.

Burk said the group would ask Masters sponsors Coca-Cola, IBM and Citigroup to not do business with a club that has no female members.

Augusta National opened in 1932 on the site of a former nursery in the northeastern Georgia town. The Masters started in 1934 and has become the most famous golf tournament in the world.

Johnson said in April the club does not have exclusionary membership policies, although it did not have a black member until 1990 and has not had a female member in its 70-year history.

No black players were invited to play the Masters until 1975. Tiger Woods, who is black, won the tournament this spring for the third time.

Burk suggested that if Augusta National does not have female members, the Masters should move to a club that does.

``The Masters, in my mind, is not tied at the hip to this club,'' she said. ``An event of this profile could be held somewhere else.''