Augusta talks about being talked about

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

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

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.

Monetarily, the Masters is a "13th month," for merchants, says Rebecca Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. While no in-depth study has been done on the economic impact of the tournament, hotel receipts have been climbing steadily, from $7.5 million in 1996 to $10.8 million in 2002.

Augusta National, founded by golfing legend Bobby Jones, opened in 1933 on 365 acres of a former nursery. It had a national membership and a big tournament from the beginning. The name of the annual competition was changed to the Masters Tournament in 1939.

Golf course and city linked

The legacy of its namesake city "brought Augusta National into our midst," says Ms. Rogers. And they've been very much intertwined ever since.

The city of Augusta was founded by Gen. James E. Oglethorpe in 1736 to replace an Indian trading post on the Savannah River. In 1845, the Augusta Canal was built to support the area's booming cotton mills.

Today, history remains important to the city's residents. The local library has a staff genealogist, who, by all accounts, stays busy helping residents track the area's complicated, and often colorful, lineages.

Augusta is now home to 300,000 people. Much of the city burned at the turn of the century, but there are still many renovated buildings. A refurbished mill houses upscale apartments. The city's River Walk draws visitors to stroll along the Savannah River.

Augusta is a marvel of urban design, laid out in precise perpendicular avenues. One of the city's main streets is James Brown Boulevard, named for the Godfather of Soul, a native of Augusta.

Some might point out the irony of this since Augusta National Golf Club didn't have a black member until 1990.

Indeed, there are those who believe the indignant tone taken by Johnson represents the kind of resistance to societal change that has been typical of the South down through the years, especially in regard to racial integration.

Local residents counter that things do eventually change - but the key is knowing how to go about it.

The wrong way, they feel, is clamoring by outsiders. The idea of a private club being told what it should do by "Yankees" rankles. It makes locals want to dig in their heels in support of one of their own.

"We're not going to march [in support of female membership]," says Mrs. Fogleman with a chuckle. "That's not the way to get things done in the South."

In some cases, though, boycotts have forced the South to change - most recently the flag protests that lead to Confederate symbols being removed from some state insignia.

Changes have already taken place at Augusta National as a result of the NCWO's campaign: The 2003 Masters will be televised commercial-free so that corporations won't be subject to pressure from groups that want them to stop their sponsorship of the tournament.

Critics aren't letting up, though. The NCWO promises to picket the Masters next year if women members haven't been admitted.

Protesters acknowledge that Augusta National, as a private club, has the right to admit whomever it wants. But hosting the Masters - which is televised around the world - puts it in a different class, they say: The host club's lack of women members sends the wrong message about professional sports and American society.

But in Augusta, there are those who wish the whole issue would just go away. They're likely to agree with the former DAR regent, who says, "Something like this to-do we have right now, we would prefer it would not be here."

Getting tired of the discussions

Many area residents are weary of hearing the same arguments over and over, on both sides of the controversy: Is it only right for women to have equal opportunity to belong to such a prestigious club, or is this campaign just political correctness run amok? Once formed, local opinions haven't changed.

But even though folks here politely disagree with one another about the politics of gender, few are willing to turn their back on the club.

Working a shift for a friend at Blast to the Past, a toy store on the town's main thoroughfare, Theresa Hall proudly wears a tourist version of the green Masters jacket.

The former executive secretary once had the opportunity to play at Augusta as the guest of a member. She was pleased to be asked, she says. "Who would pass that up? It was a thrill."

In fact, Augusta National treats women golfers better than many men-only clubs, several of which won't even let women out of their cars when they drop off their husbands.

Whether that makes up for not admitting women members is still being discussed in some circles. Townsfolk wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see the golf club admit female members - but no one's guessing at a timetable.

"Hootie's already said he'll consider admitting women," says one local shopper exiting Dillard's department store. "But they'll do it on their own sweet time."

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