Augusta National Golf Club is one of the most secure patches of landscape I have ever seen. Guarding this serenity year-round are security patrols and fences that protect the azaleas from the prying eyes of the waitresses at the International House of Pancakes on Washington Road. Entrance to Augusta is granted only to club members, elite guests, and visitors to the Masters Tournament every April, including hordes of Ashworth-swaddled golf freaks who can be found genuflecting at the towering oak that shrouds the clubhouse with its tendrils.
But there is an ugly secret to that tree, just as there is a taint to virtually everything inside Augusta, including the shrink-wrapped sandwiches swimming in mustard and mayo and sold by the truckload at the concession booths. Stand under the tree and look up and you will see that it is supported by a grid of wires and supports. The trunk is filled with cement. The tree itself is nothing more than an elaborate marionette.
That’s Augusta National. The greens are painted. The creek is dyed blue. Nothing is quite what it seems. This perfectly fake veneer has recently been unsettled by the protracted battle between the club chairman, one William “Hootie” Johnson, and Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, over Augusta’s dearth of female members. Burk has been exerting pressure on CBS, which televises the Masters, and on the PGA Tour, and on the membership of Augusta, and on anyone else who will listen. Johnson is saying very little publicly, digging in his heels by dropping affiliations with the tournament broadcast’s corporate sponsors, and burnishing his image as the Boss Hogg of the country-club set.
And what we have now is a real mess, driven by media, pivoting on the axis of political correctness, polarizing Johnson and Burk, men and women, conservatives and liberals. It has become widespread enough in its pull to sully the reputation of both The New York Times and Bryant Gumbel, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping.
Here’s the thing about it: This is not an issue of outright bigotry. It’s not that the Augusta National doesn’t want to admit women, at least on a token basis; female guests and spouses of members are already allowed on the courses, and women played more than 1,000 rounds last year, with no restriction on tee times or access to the clubhouse. This is a more lenient policy than any number of other exclusive clubs. The problem is that Augusta National wishes to admit women on its own terms, and not at the whim of someone like Martha Burk, who sent the club a letter in June and in response received a defiant public statement from Johnson declaring that Augusta would not induct a female member “at the point of a bayonet.”
That’s Augusta National. It is both Southern charm and Southern gothic. It refuses to raise the prices of its Masters souvenirs to the eye-gouging heights of the PGA Championship or the U.S. Open, yet bans running anywhere within its grounds, and hires security guards so zealous they once nearly threw out former champion George Archer after he grew a beard and didn’t match the picture on his ID badge.
So Burk should be admired for her persistence in standing up to a formidable opponent. But it’s not surprising that her recent appeal to the PGA Tour to dissociate itself from the Masters was treated with the same disdain that the Tour held for a disabled golfer, Casey Martin, who wanted to ride in a cart. This is not exactly the ACLU she’s dealing with. This is not even Major League Baseball. Golf is the most conservative organized sport in the world, drawing heavily from long-standing notions of sportsmanship and propriety.
The fundamental problem is that the PGA Tour doesn’t understand anything about marketing its game in the 21st century. Golf is hugely popular among minorities on a grass-roots level, but its still an insular game at the top. Its image is dictated by traditionalists and elitists, by Cadillac commercials and $79 polo shirts, and none of this is an accident. Five years after Tiger Woods won the Masters and supposedly shattered boundaries, the sport is agonizingly slow to change. Certain players, many of whom have never even set foot on a public course, still bitch and moan about rambunctious crowds.
“We don’t see that (rowdiness) at (the Masters) and why it’s not like that everywhere, I don’t know,” said the aptly named Davis Love III. “The state of the culture these days, people don’t have respect for other people.”
Listen: Nobody’s asking for a Tiger Woods-Sergio Garcia cage match. Nobody wants the game to devolve into Happy Gilmore (God forbid.) Yes, golf’s tradition and its honor system (I once saw Lee Janzen disqualified from a tournament for waiting too long for his ball to drop in the hole) is what separates it from mainstream sport. It’s sort of retro-cool that Augusta members refer to Masters fans only as “patrons,” but this same tradition leads the sport’s oligarchic rulers to believe that they are entitled to a certain amount of separation from the ruffled masses. But they can’t do that anymore. The kids who are the future of the sport won’t stand for it. They like to cheer, and they like to talk a little trash. So golf’s dictators have two choices: They can either chill out or watch their game grow obsolete.
In 1994, CBS broadcaster Gary McCord, one of the best and most irreverent announcers in the business, was banned from working the Masters after watching ball after ball roll off the 16th green and declaring, “Man, they must have slicked these (greens) down with bikini wax.” It was a silly little controversy at the time, an extreme example of Augusta’s reliance on outdated principles, but it’s these same principles that have backed Hootie Johnson into a corner. He says Augusta National is a private club, and it can do what it wants, and of course, he’s right. The problem is that the game no longer belongs to him. He can no longer dictate his terms. The change may be slow, but it is coming, and Tiger Woods, despite all of his caution in speaking about this matter, has made sure of that.
Woods has been reticent, and part of me wishes he’d actually say something substantial, but the truth is he doesn’t have to say anything. Give it two or three generations, and minority (and perhaps even female) golfers, some of whom are being bred through Woods’ charity foundation, will flood the PGA Tour. And they’ll do the talking for him. Which means if Johnson continues his posturing, there may eventually no longer be anything to guard at Augusta except a very large, very hollow tree.