Commentary: All the Augusta News That's Fit to Print

With The New York Times on his back, Hootie Johnson is up against a power far more lethal than a feminist gadfly

In a year that has seen a terror-fighting President take America to the brink of war, that has seen the economy teeter and totter, that has seen Corporate America repeatedly revealed as a double-dealer, and that has seen the Democratic Party roundly humiliated, you'd think the country would have little time for a tempest in a golf cup over whether wealthy women should be admitted to a club where fat cats with sagging portfolios suck in their waistlines and try to hit a small white ball.

But the manufactured outrage over the gender-specific policies of Augusta National Golf Club apparently will not go away. On its face, that seems to be because Martha Burk, a feisty feminist out of Tyler, Tex., woke up one day and decided that what was going on at the home of the now-unfortunately named Masters Tournament was wrong, wrong, wrong, and she was going to right it.

Burk heads the National Council of Women's Organizations, an umbrella group that most people have never heard of and that claims to represent 6 million women. That put her in a position to exert some pressure--up to a point. Despite rancorous exchanges with Augusta Chairman William "Hootie" Johnson--recounted in the press ad nauseam--she got almost nowhere. Didn't move the leadership of the club an inch. Elicited no meaningful support from pro golfers. Was given the silent treatment by the limo full of corporate CEOs who are members. Got shut out by the PGA Tour. And was brushed off by CBS, which broadcasts the Masters. Augusta did suspend sponsors of the tournament, started by golfing god Bobby Jones, ostensibly to save Citigroup (C ), Coca-Cola (KO ), and IBM (IBM ) from embarrassment.

Then, on Dec. 3, it was reported that Thomas H. Wyman, a former CEO of CBS, had resigned his membership in protest over the club's exclusionary policies. That may turn out to be a crucial victory. But for whom?

Burk's role as catalyst fulfilled, she has been sidelined--sort of like the Jerry Orbach detective in Law & Order after he has delivered the perp to the district attorney.

The case against Augusta is now being prosecuted by a power far more lethal than the NCWO and the righteous Ms. Burk. By now, Hootie and the other blowfish at Augusta surely realize that the barrel they are staring down belongs to The New York Times. Indeed, Wyman's resignation was first reported in a box on Page One of the Times, with a full story prominently displayed inside.

Since July, when the flap came to the fore, enough ink to fill Lake Titicaca has been spilled on the Augusta story. But no publication can match the newspaper of what seems like an endlessly replaying record: At last count, the Times had run over 40 stories, columns, and editorials.

In mid-November alone, there was nothing short of Hootie-mania in its pages. A column by Dave Anderson began, "Hootie Johnson keeps asking for trouble," a column by Robert Lipsyte tried to explore the mind of Hootie, and an editorial called Hootie "the poster boy for a particularly repressive branch of the golfing set." That was in addition to five news stories. On Nov. 25, a Page One piece under the man-didn't-bite-dog headline "CBS Staying Silent in Debate on Women Joining Augusta" managed to bury the results of a Times poll indicating that "a plurality of Americans think it is unfair to force a private club to accept women." No mention was made of a Nov. 14 story questioning the validity of a poll commissioned by Augusta that came to much the same conclusion.

In an article about the Times in its Dec. 9 edition, Newsweek even suggested that the Southern populism of Times Executive Editor Howell Raines might be influencing coverage. Says Burk, who does not believe she has been supplanted as Augusta's chief adversary: "[The Times] has taken up the cause." Raines was unavailable for comment.

Whatever the motivation for the Times's relentless attention, with Wyman's resignation, the ramparts have been breached. CBS has been shamed by its former chief. And current corporate bosses, forced by the realities of the labor market to encourage gender equality, diversity, and other socially liberal positions, will now have to do more than talk the talk. Unless the club changes its policies, CEO members who don't walk the walk--out the door of the Alamo in Augusta--will have some explaining to do to The New York Times.

By Ciro Scotti with Susann Rutledge in New York

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