Remember Hootie and Martha? This time last year the controversy surrounding Augusta National's all-male membership was hitting a peak On the eve of the Masters, Jesse Jackson was making headlines by raising the possibility of civil disobedience at the protest organized by Martha Burk, the chairperson of the National Council of Women's Organizations. Meanwhile the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was among the eclectic group that had promised to turn out to show its support for Hootie Johnson, Augusta National's rock-ribbed chairman.
Because the battle for Augusta National played out on the sports page, there had to be a winner and a loser, and Burk's protest on Masters Saturday was to be the defining moment of the fray. When it turned out that reporters outnumbered demonstrators by two to one, and an Elvis impersonator and drag queen stole the spotlight, the verdict was that Hootie won and Martha lost, decisively. A year later Johnson is still entrenched as the czar of all-male Augusta, and a demoralized Burk has said that she will not show her face next week at the Masters, because she's still bitter at having been forced to hold her protest in a grassy field out of sight of the front gates. "Why go back down there and be stuck in a mud hole a mile away?" Burk said to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February.
Johnson is also trying to move on. "What really happened last year, I think, is that the public recognized our constitutional rights as a private club," Johnson said in the April 2004 Golf magazine. "And I think they're tired of the whole thing. The golfing world is tired of it, and I know I am."
But as much as Hootie would like to make all the unpleasantness go away, that's not going to happen. Next week's Masters will again be sponsor-free because the home of one of the world's premier sporting events remains too polarizing for large corporations. By kissing off sponsorship money, Augusta National loses between 5 and 10 million dollars annually. Johnson has said that the club can present the Masters without sponsors "indefinitely," and from a financial standpoint, that is true; recent estimates have put the club's annual take from the tournament at $25 million, generated largely through ticket and merchandise sales. But every hour that goes by on the telecast without a commercial is a reminder that women still can't be members at Augusta and that Burk has had an impact. Johnson has said that he would like to have sponsors again—the former chairman of the executive committee at Bank of America surely does not enjoy overseeing a corporate pariah—but any company that signs on can expect to become a target for Burk and her 10-million-member organization.
There are other reasons to think we have merely reached a lull in the battle, not an end of the war. A decision on Burk's lawsuit alleging that Augusta's local government stifled her First Amendment rights could come any day. A victory for Burk could have her packing her protest signs and heading south. Meanwhile, Johnson is 73 and has had a history of heart problems; his stepping down, which will come sooner rather than later, creates the possibility of a fissure within the club. And who knows what the future holds? What if a certain 14-year-old girl achieves her dream of winning the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, which would mean an automatic invitation to the Masters? Michelle Wie's presence between the ropes would have a profound effect on the debate.
Golf changes slowly. Many private clubs, including Augusta, were segregated until 1990. Clearly, Burk is impatient with the glacial pace of the game's change. As she said recently, "If I have any regrets about the situation down there it's that I did not let them arrest me." But Hootie has reason to be dissatisfied too. Even though Burk will not be coming down this year, she has not really gone away, and neither has the pressure to make his club a little bit more like the rest of America.