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Augusta talks about being talked about

Everyone in the city has an opinion about what the famed men-only golf club should do

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / December 18, 2002


For years, residents of Augusta, Ga., basked in the reflected glory of the Augusta National Golf Club and its famous Masters Tournament.

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Then, suddenly the news about Augusta no longer centered on fabled fairways and springtime displays of dogwoods and azaleas. Instead, newspapers and TV stations from New York to California were lamenting that the golf course had no female members - and wasn't planning on inviting women to join anytime soon.

For months the city has buzzed about the flap that began when Martha Burk, chairman of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO), wrote a letter protesting the club's all-male membership. Instead of answering her letter with a gentlemanly note saying "we're working on it" (as Ms. Burk has said she expected), Augusta National chairman William "Hootie" Johnson made the letter public and fired back a different response - the club had no intention of changing its policy.

Local reactions range from indifference to wholehearted support for Mr. Johnson's position. "I'd say 90 percent of people here think it's a big flap about very little," says Wayne Carver, a mail carrier who grew up in Augusta.

A local waitress named Sara certainly believes that the brouhaha is much ado about nothing. She wrinkles her nose at the mention of golf. "That's the old money talking," she says, her pierced tongue clanking on her teeth.

Justin Lungsfeld, who used to play golf but now prefers racing remote- controlled cars, declares himself in favor of women having the opportunity to belong to the private club. "Golf's for everybody," he opines.

Augusta National is not the only American golf club with an all-male membership. There are, actually, some 20, including Burning Tree, 10 miles from the White House, where former presidents Nixon, Ford, and George H.W. Bush have played.

In fact, unlike some of the others, Augusta National routinely allows women to play as guests.

So why is Augusta being singled out as the bad guy, some locals ask. Is this another volley in the battle between North and South?

It's not hard to find those who believe it is. Indeed, this notion of the North pushing its values on a region that has one foot in the modern economy and the other deep in history resonates with the city's citizens - even though only a handful of the club's members are actually from Augusta. (Forty-four are from Georgia, 22 from New York. Only two have resigned since the uproar began.)

"This is a true Southern town and, well, our values are a little bit different from a lot of other towns," says a former regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution, shyly requesting that her name not be used. "True, we are a little bit stubborn, but I don't think [critics] understand, and I don't think they want to understand [residents' opposing point of view]."

"The whole concept of an upper-class club for upper-class white guys is a very Southern thing," says Harry Watson, the director of the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"Remember, The [New York] Times [which has used much ink in reporting the controversy] stands for a national upper class, too," he adds. "And they want a class structure that looks different from the one in Augusta. They want Augusta to come in line with the standards of New York."

In the South, Mr. Watson says, people understand what he calls a kind of "democratic hypocrisy": that the rich and powerful still have a larger say than most in community affairs.

"Is New York a democracy because women are members at the Times editors' country club?" he asks. "I don't think so. So there's a certain amount of hypocrisy" in both cultures.

It may surprise the members of the 160 organizations that belong to the NCWO, but a majority of Augusta's female citizens probably side with Johnson in the the dust-up.

"Sure, the Augusta National is all-male," says Marguerite Fogleman, president of the Daughters of American Founders and Patriots in North Augusta, S.C., "but I belong to lots of [social organizations] where the membership is limited, meaning we don't let the men in.

"I think it's really important for people to be able to do their own thing."

A group of local businesswomen recently had a meeting with the NCWO's Ms. Burk to complain that her group's campaign against the club had cost them substantial business.

The fact that the annual Masters Tournament puts plenty of cash in the pockets of so many locals may color their attitudes toward the club, cynics say.

Thousands of homeowners rent out their houses to the mobs of April visitors, and then leave town for the invasion. Even the high school closes for the week, and hundreds of teens are mobilized as assistant greenskeepers, rope wardens, and "sanitary specialists" who quickly remove even the tiniest piece of trash that's dropped to the ground.