It’s hard to believe that the bitter controversy over the Augusta National Golf Club’s once all-male membership started 15 years ago with a single letter from Martha Burk, then-chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO).
What ended less that spectacularly for Burk and NCWO, however, is now being credited for many of the changes we have seen at the Augusta National.
The magazine said golfers could thank Burk for several of the club’s upgrades, including “a televised Par 3 Contest, a state-of the art hospitality club called Berckman’s Place, and the warm-and-fuzzy Drive, Chip and Putt Contest that is open to young boys and girls.”
The National also made another significant change. In 2012, the club announced that Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, and Darla Moore, a South Carolina financier, would become its first two female members.
However, that was 10 years after Burk and the NCWO took its very public stand.
So was it really Burk’s doing?
Apparently, Burk thought so in 2013.
“Condoleezza Rice looks like she’s having a great time — and more power to her,” Burk wrote in The Huffington Post in 2013. “Someone emailed me to ask if I didn’t think she maybe owes me a beer. Sure she does — me and a lot of others standing in that muddy field a decade ago.”
Back then, no one in Augusta knew of Martha Burk and few had ever heard of the NCWO. It was just some extremist group that wrote a letter to the most prestigious golf club in the country, pretending it had a lot of weight to throw around.
In the very first sentence of Burk’s much-talked-about June 2002 letter to Hootie Johnson, then-chairman of the Augusta National, Burk asked the club to accept female members, something it hadn’t done since it formed in 1932.
Then, Burk dropped the bomb. Her closing paragraph was what Johnson called a demand “at the point of a bayonet.”
“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 wrote to Johnson. “We urge you to review your policies and practices in this regard and open your membership to women now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year.”
Exactly 15 years ago this week, on July 9, 2002, Johnson fired back.
“Our membership alone decides our membership — not any outside group with its own agenda,” Johnson proclaimed in his written statement to the press. “Dr. Burk’s letter incorporates a deadline tied to the Masters and refers to sponsors of the tournament’s telecast. These references make it abundantly clear that Augusta National Golf Club is being threatened with a public campaign designed to use economic pressure to achieve a goal of NCWO.”
Johnson explained that the Augusta National and the Masters are separate entities: One being a private club; the other, a world-class sporting event.
“It is insidious to attempt to use one to alter the essence of the other,” Johnson wrote. “The essence of a private club is privacy.”
Realizing his answer to Burk’s “threat” would further antagonize the situation, Johnson predicted the NCWO’s future strategy would be to try and shame its members into inviting a woman to join the club through boycotts, picketing and other campaigns. The Augusta National’s response to such threats? We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated.
Along with the Augusta National’s challenge by Burk, the city of Augusta was also eventually dragged into a battle of its own against the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
ACLU attorneys took the city to court arguing the city was wrong in denying Burk and the NCWO the right to protest at the front gates of the Augusta National and across the street along Magnolia Drive, but then-Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength’s answers showed how much he knew about Masters Week crowds and traffic.
“There is a massive number of pedestrians and an untold number of vehicles that travel Magnolia Drive during Masters,” Strength told the court, describing Magnolia Drive as a narrow road without sidewalks that leads to several private residences that Masters patrons often use for parking. “There’s at least 1,000 folks a day on Magnolia Drive. … And there is nowhere to walk. They have to walk in the street.”
If there were to be a number of protesters shouting and holding up signs along this heavily traveled area, Strength said it could cause major traffic accidents because drivers wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the road.
At Burk’s other requested location, just outside the Augusta National’s main gates by Magnolia Lane, Strength said that there simply wasn’t enough room for both protesters and patrons of the tournament to safely use because the footpath on the that side of the road is narrow and uneven. Or, if the path became too congested, Strength said, someone could easily trip and fall into the heavy traffic on Washington Road.
In order to satisfy the protesters’ wishes of being in close proximity to the Augusta National and address his own public safety concerns, Strength requested the use of 5.1 acres of land owned by the Augusta National along Washington Road in front of the then-Savannah West Apartments. When the Augusta National agreed to let the city use the property, Strength said he thought his worries were over. He felt that this area would be large enough to safely accommodate everyone applying for a protest permit.
Instead, the NCWO filed suit against the city.
In the end, the judge agreed with the city and upheld the sheriff’s decision to locate Burk, the NCWO and the rest of the protesters all together in one happy, 5-acre lot across from the Augusta National.
When Burk’s protest finally occurred during Masters 2003, there were more members of the media standing in the pouring rain covering the event than actual protesters.
But Burk didn’t seem to care and, ironically, now many in the national media sing her praises.