It’s hard to believe that the bitter controversy over the Augusta National Golf Club’s once all-male membership started about 15 years ago with a seemingly innocent letter from Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations.
Back then, no one in Augusta knew of Martha Burk, and few had ever heard of the NCWO.
It wasn’t even the National Organization of Women (NOW), the more well-known and highly vocal feminist group based in Washington, D.C.
So, why worry?
For most Augustans, the NCWO was nothing more than an annoying gnat.
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 now infamous June 12, 2002, letter to Hootie Johnson, then-chairman of the Augusta National who passed away in 2017, Burk simply stated her case, by first introducing the NCWO as “the nation’s oldest and largest coalition of women’s groups.”
“Our member groups are very concerned that the nation’s premier golf event, the Masters, is hosted by a club that discriminates against women by excluding them from membership,” Burk continued in her letter to Johnson. “As you know, no woman has been invited to join since the club was formed in 1932.”
Then, Burk dropped the bomb.
It was her closing paragraph to Johnson that he once 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.”
With those two sentences, the Martha Burk battle against the Augusta National and Masters 2003 had begun.
Three weeks after receiving the letter from Burk, Johnson alerted the American public to this “attack” on the Augusta National’s membership.
“Our membership alone decides our membership — not any outside group with its own agenda,” Johnson proclaimed in his 2002 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.”
This would soon become the mantra for those supporting the Augusta National for the next nine months prior to Masters 2003.
Realizing that his answer to Burk’s “threat” would further antagonize the situation, Johnson predicted the NCWO’s future strategy would be to try to shame its members into inviting a woman to join the club.
“We expect such a campaign would attempt to depict the members of our club as insensitive bigots and coerce the sponsors of the Masters to disassociate themselves under threat — real or implied — of boycotts and other economic pressures,” Johnson wrote.
“There could be attempts at direct contact with board members of sponsoring corporations and inflammatory mailings to stockholders and investment institutions,” he added. “We might see everything from picketing and boycotts to T-shirts and bumper stickers.”
Just call Johnson an excellent strategist for the NCWO.
The Augusta National’s response to such threats: We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated.
“Obviously, Dr. Burk and her colleagues view themselves as agents of change and feel any organization that has stood the test of time and has strong roots in tradition — and does not fit their profile — needs to be changed,” Johnson wrote.
“We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case.”
Battle lines had officially been drawn.
From that moment forward, the Augusta National was at war with Burk and the NCWO.
One week before traveling to Augusta for the demonstration, Burk spoke with the Metro Spirit about her reasoning behind the protest.
And, Burk, a Texan who grew up in the suburbs of Pasadena, did not mince her words.
“Our intention is not, and never was, to hurt the business community in Augusta, Ga.,” Burk told the Metro Spirit in 2003. “The people who have the power to hurt or help the local business community are the members of ANGC (Augusta National Golf Course.) If they had already changed the admissions policy of ANGC, then it could have been business as usual this April in Augusta.”
But Burk said she simply couldn’t ignore Augusta National’s then all-male club membership.
Prior to Masters 2002, Burk told the Metro Spirit she was reading a sports column in USA Today which reported that the Augusta National — with its 300-plus members consisting of some of the most prominent people in the country — did not admit women.
Burk, who described herself as a “political psychologist” and “women’s equity expert” and had been chair of the NCWO since 2000, decided to contact the chairman of Augusta National.
“I wrote a private letter to Hootie Johnson, asking him to reconsider the club’s membership policies,” Burk told the Metro Spirit in 2003. “It was Hootie who brought this issue into the public eye by issuing a three-page press release to members of the national press.”
While NCWO received a lot of publicity regarding their stand against the Augusta National, Burk insisted that Johnson was the one who created the media circus.
“Although we did not anticipate pursuing this issue to this degree, one cannot always pick one’s battles,” Burk said, “and we believe that discrimination is wrong whenever it occurs.”
In fact, Burk said the NCWO had been fighting for decades on pressing women’s concerns such as saving Title IX (the gender equity in sports law) and Roe v. Wade, marching for peace, calling senators to oppose anti-woman judges, advocating for poor women, demanding fair pay and living wages for men and women, and working to defend Afghan women and restore funding for international family planning.
Of all those issues dealt with by the NCWO, it was the press that decided her campaign against the Augusta National was the most newsworthy, Burk said.
Ironically, it was probably Johnson’s blatantly hostile public statement against the NCWO when he stated, “We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case,” which became Burk’s biggest aid in her campaign.
“If ANGC wants to be treated like a private club, then it should start acting like one,” Burk said. “No more corporate sponsorship, no more public tournament broadcast by CBS into our living rooms four days a year, no more selling millions of dollars of merchandise to the public.”
Augusta National can’t have it both ways, Burk said.
“ANGC is not simply a sporting venue, but a networking opportunity for the most wealthy and powerful men in the country,” Burk said in 2003, adding that the Augusta National was putting thousands of highly successful, professional women at a disadvantage to their male counterparts.
“In an age when most business deals take place both in the boardroom and on the golf course, when who you know matters as much as what you know, Augusta’s discriminatory policies are emblematic of the discrimination that women face in the business world.”
WHERE YOU STAND
On Saturday, April 12, 2003 — the third day of the Masters tournament that year — Martha Burk finally arrived in Augusta.
Many locals, who were closely following Burk’s protest against the Augusta National, were quick to point out that there were more members of the media standing in the rain covering the event than actual protesters.
While some Augustans might have been making fun of the protest’s turnout, Burk wasn’t laughing.
Years later, after the Augusta National finally admitted two women as its its first members of the private club in 2012, Burk told the Golf Channel that she wore a bulletproof vest to the demonstration because she had received death threats prior to the protest.
Burk said she even decided to hire bodyguards for the day.
“They were standing right next to me when I spoke,” she told the Golf Channel in 2012.
“I got a lot of death threats, I had to hire bodyguards, and I did wear a bulletproof vest. It was not fun. I believed in what I was doing. I don’t want to take personal credit. Yes, I was a spokesperson, but there were a lot of women standing behind me as well.”
When the Augusta National announced in 2012 that Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, and Darla Moore, a South Carolina financier, would become its first two female members, Burk said she felt “vindicated.”
Even if it was 10 years after Burk and the NCWO took its very public stand.
“We won,” Burk told the Golf Channel in 2012. “Absolutely, that’s how I feel… It’s important symbolically. In an absolute sense, two women playing golf is not important, but two women being allowed into one of the enclaves of power for, basically, Fortune 500 members is a very important symbolic statement about the place of women in society.”
Burk sincerely believed that her organization’s actions forced change at Augusta National.
“Had we not started this 10 years ago, and kept at it and kept at it, it wouldn’t have happened now, and it might not have happened ever,” she told the Golf Channel. “We did not give up. There were several confluences that came together: IBM naming a woman as a CEO was one factor. I think we were another one. We succeeded in changing public opinion pretty well.”
One of the most pointed descriptions of Burk’s 2003 protest, which was held in a muddy field less than a mile from the gates of the Augusta National, came from the New York Daily News.
The paper said the demonstration looked “more like a freak show than a history-altering civil action.”
“There was an inflatable pig and an Elvis impersonator,” the New York Daily News reported. “There was a flag-draped drag queen named Georgina Z. Bush and a Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard named J.J. Harper. One male chauvinist held a sign that urged women to ‘Make My Dinner.’ Another man showed up in a tuxedo, holding a sign that said ‘Formal Protest.’”
Back then, Burk was not so complimentary of the Garden City.
“Augusta is all about Applebee’s and boredom, so we certainly livened up the place,” Burk told the New York newspaper.
However, Burk admitted the demonstration wasn’t as successful as she hoped.
“The protest did not net the result that we wanted but beyond that, we accomplished our goal,” she told the NY Daily News. “We kept the issue in the media for a year.”
ONE WOMAN’S LOOK INSIDE THE NATIONAL
From the very beginning of Burk’s crusade against the Augusta National in 2003, she always stressed, “This isn’t about golf.”
According to a four-time women’s golf champion at the Augusta Country Club, Robbie Williams, that was Burk’s whole problem.
“Martha Burk doesn’t play golf; she doesn’t understand what learning to play golf is all about, and therefore, she can’t possibly understand the Augusta National,” Williams,
co-author of “Gentlemen Only: An Insider’s View of Golf in Augusta,” told the Metro Spirit in 2003.
Williams, a resident of Dublin, Ga., wrote about her experiences as wife of a longtime member of Augusta National, the late-Henry Heffernan.
“I feel strongly that if Martha Burk is going to be the flag-bearer for all women and open up the gates of the Augusta National to them, she needs to know what she’s talking about,” Williams told the Metro Spirit in 2003. “She needs to have a single-digit handicap. She needs to have done an in-depth study about, not just the Augusta National, but the Augusta area.
“To me, what upsets me the most about all this controversy is that those people who are provoking it are operating from total ignorance.”
While some people might say that expecting Burk to learn how to play golf is a little much, Williams pointed out that understanding the sport would give Burk insight into the debate.
In April 1966, when her husband was invited to become a member of the Augusta National, Williams knew very little about the game of golf and even less about the Augusta National.
At age 30, this south Georgia native and mother of three girls learned how to play the game by secretly traveling to the outskirts of town to hit balls at a driving range that was once a drive-in movie theater.
Williams said her strong desire to learn to play golf began after her husband bought her a set of golf clubs at her request.
When he brought the clubs home, he tossed them on the living room floor and said, “Here they are, but you’ll never be able to hit them.”
Immediately, Williams said she was determined to excel at golf and prove her husband wrong.
After years of practice, Williams became a CSRA golf champion and was a four-time women’s golf champion at the Augusta Country Club.
Some wouldn’t hesitate to call Williams a feminist in her own right, but she describes it more as taking pride in oneself and what you stand for.
“I think Martha Burk has a very selfish motive in this attack,” Williams told the Metro Spirit in 2003, wearing a tiny gold Augusta National necklace around her neck that her children gave her. “It’s obvious because she has a total lack of wanting to take the time to understand what the situation is all about.”
Williams totally disagreed with Burk’s position toward the Augusta National, but she was even more dismayed by the NCWO’s handling of its campaign against the club.
She believed the last thing Burk should have done was to send Hootie Johnson, a man who Burk had never even met, a threatening letter.
“To me, it’s like shaking hands with a stranger while holding a gun in your left hand,” Williams said. “It was definitely a threat.”
Burk was out to promote Martha Burk and that’s all, Williams said.
“If I had been Martha Burk, what I would have done, I would have attacked all of the clubs in the country that are male-only,” Williams said. “Not just the Augusta National. I would have included clubs like the Burning Tree Golf Club (in Michigan) that have all these senators and the president who play there and where they won’t let women on the premises.
“Martha Burk could have included all of those clubs and made a real difference for women in golf if she had wanted to. But she didn’t. She just attacked the National, and that tells me she just wanted a great stage on which to perform. She wanted controversy, she wanted attention and she wanted people to talk. That’s it.”
But instead of the media jumping on Burk for her blatant self promotion during this campaign, Williams said, reporters targeted Johnson and the Augusta National.
“Hootie Johnson had no choice but to respond the way he did,” Williams said in 2003. “What people don’t understand is, it’s his job as chairman to uphold the traditions and legacy of the club founded by Bobby Jones, Cliff Roberts and Jerome Franklin. So, what Hootie Johnson is doing is what every other chairman has done since Clifford Roberts, and that’s just staying the course.”
AUGUSTA NATIONAL ‘DISCRIMINATES AGAINST EVERYBODY
Just days before NCWO’s protest, Williams insisted that Burk was “barking up the wrong tree,” regarding the private golf club.
“The Augusta National discriminates against everybody,” Williams frankly said in 2003. “They discriminate against the poor. They discriminate against locals. For instance, Cliff Roberts lovingly called club members from Augusta, ‘trunk slammers,’ because they were not what he had in mind.”
“Cliff Roberts wanted you to fly in to town to golf, not drive up in your car,” Williams added. “So, they discriminate against their own members. And if they decided to kick you out, they just kicked you out. It’s that simple.”
Williams said the same rules of justice do not apply inside the gates of the National because it is a uniquely private club based in tradition.
“If you have something like that, I don’t think the average rules apply,” Williams said. “They can’t. The club was founded upon every situation and every determination being made internally. And if Hootie would relent and Martha Burk and all of these creeps would get what they want, it would be the first time that the Augusta National would ever have let that happen. So, it would eventually become like every other club in the country, and that would be a horrible shame.”
The most ironic thing about Burk’s entire crusade, Williams said, was the fact that hundreds of women are invited to play golf at the Augusta National each year by members and are treated with the highest respect.
“Of the two places in Augusta that I played, the Augusta Country Club and the Augusta National, I was treated much better at the Augusta National than at the Augusta Country Club,” Williams said in 2003. “Sometimes I might play once a week at the Augusta National or sometimes two or three times a week. So, I played a lot of golf out there. And the Augusta National truly is a ‘gentlemen-only’ area.
“I never experienced any person out there or any staff or any situation that was less than very friendly and very helpful. It truly is the epitome of being overly nice, warm and helpful. It’s just perfect.”
Back in 2003, many Augustans couldn’t have agreed more with Williams.
In fact, at time of the protest, Hootie Johnson was seen as a saint in Augusta, while anti-Burk T-shirts were being sold all around town for $15.95.
Despite the mounds of criticism dumped on Burk, along with several death threats, she told the Metro Spirit in 2003 that she had absolutely no regrets.
“I have been called a lot of nasty names over past years,” Burk said. “Anytime you work for women’s rights, those who don’t believe in equality call you names. But it certainly won’t deter me from fighting sex discrimination whenever it occurs.”