Americans wonder if golf has 'grass ceiling'

Players will fight for the Masters title - and protesters will fight for women's right to join the elite Georgia club.

Ever since Tiger Woods first won the Masters Tournament six years ago, he has overshadowed the golf world. But Thursday, as the sport's signature event again tees off on the rain-slicked grass of Augusta National, the only way Woods could command America's full golfing attention would be if he were a member - and a woman.

Surely, when Woods uncoils his first bolo-whip drive into the thick Georgia morning, a hush will fall over the gallery assembled to see if he wins an unprecedented third consecutive Masters. Not far away, though, women's rights advocate Martha Burk will be shouting, and cameras will be rolling.

The cause of her protest has become as much a subject of lunch-break conversation as the tournament itself: Augusta National has no women members. The tumult this has created hints at questions that reach beyond the fairways and fringes of Augusta. For the second time in little more than a decade, it has left Americans to wonder whether golf has a grass ceiling.

"It's no secret that country clubs over the years have been bastions of wealthy, mostly white men," says Matt Rudy of Golf Digest magazine. In seeking equity, "there are not many institutions that have farther to come."

Now, as the Masters begins, statistics and anecdotes gathered from across the United States suggest that the progress report for the nation's golf clubs is decidedly mixed.

On one hand, golf has probably never been more open. Augusta is one of only about 20 golf clubs that prohibit female members. Moreover, the recent growth in the number of public clubs - which now make up nearly three-quarters of the more than 15,000 golf clubs nationwide - has allowed more people to pick up a pitching wedge. Also, some private clubs, pinched by the economy, are cutting fees to attract new members.

The paradox of modern golf

Yet surveys still show that the overwhelming majority of golfers are white men. And in golf's spiritual homeland - ultraexclusive clubs - change seems to move with the speed of a caddy on the 18th fairway.

At clubs with female members, complaints that women are banned from the best tee times are not uncommon.

The populism of public-course duffers is pitted against the tradition of Augusta's upper-class idyll - a paradox of modern golf as it attempts to at once expand its appeal and keep a sense of continuity with the past.

"There are two worlds in golf," says Rudy, "and those two sides are trying to find a way to coexist."

From his swath of Louisiana grass, Stan Stopa can see both sides. As the head pro of the public Audubon Park Golf Course in New Orleans, he sees all types of golfers spread out among the gentle hills of cypress and live oak. But when talk turns to the Masters, he says he also understands a private club's desire to choose its own members, whether they be white or black, male or female.

"I don't see where there's anything wrong with that," he says. "If people want to have their own thing, they have their own thing."

Stiff competition, relaxed policy

In recent years, however, a combination of factors has made that difficult for all but the most elite clubs.

One is economic. The golf course-building binge of the 1990s has left more golf courses than people to play them. The competition has already put a number of private clubs out of business. Others, looking for members, have actually turned to advertising. The Brandywine Country Club in Maumee, Ohio, for instance, sent out a mass mailing to potential members with a coupon for $2,000 off the $6,000 initiation fee.

"As private clubs must compete more and more with high-end daily fee [clubs], they had better have programs in place to welcome minorities and women," says Jim Kass of the National Golf Foundation. "Otherwise, they might not survive."

To most observers, though, the signal moment in the Great Membership Debate came in 1990, when the PGA Championship was scheduled for Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Ala. After the Professional Golfers Association of America discovered that Shoal Creek had no black or female members, it laid out a new rule: A club forbidding female and African-American members could not host tour events.

As a result, clubs either had to open their doors or forfeit the right to hold a tournament.

"Shoal Creek was a wake-up call," says Ruffin Beckwith, executive director of Golf 20/20, an organization in Ponte Vidra, Fla., that studies the future of golf. "It forced golf as an industry to deal with this issue."

Several clubs dropped out, such as the all-male Pine Valley in New Jersey, rated No. 1 in America by Golf Digest. So did the Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas, where Mickey Mantle used to play nude except for a pair of golf spikes. Augusta National also does not qualify under PGA rules, but it is unaffected because it hosts the Masters entirely on its own.

Those that have moved to accept women and minorities have met with varying degrees of success. In almost all cases, however, progress has been slow.

When Don Mathis hears of discrimination that has crept into other clubs, he chuckles. His Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Okla., doesn't limit the times when women can tee off because it doesn't even have tee times. There are no extra fees for women, and the club has full facilities.

But Oak Tree still has only three female members. He imagines the initiation fee might play a role, as well as a course layout that favors men. But Mathis has no intention of turning Oak Tree back into the men's golf club it was until he took over in 1994.

"I don't like to discriminate," he says. "I'm not saying other clubs don't discriminate; I'm just saying that we handle it differently than other clubs do."

Glynn Wilson in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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