Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

At Augusta, Focus Shifts from Gender to Game

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

At Augusta, Focus Shifts from Gender to Game

Article excerpt

Now that Augusta National has two female members, officials there are fielding more questions about the sport than about the club's membership policy.

Ten years ago, in a sodden, ant-infested vacant lot a half-mile from the main gate of the Augusta National Golf Club, the most serious protest over the club's all-male membership hit its highwater mark.

The unkempt, grassy parcel about a kilometer from the club was host to a small but celebrated demonstration led by the women's rights advocate Martha Burk. It was also attended by an Elvis Presley impersonator, a Ku Klux Klan member and dozens of television cameras that recorded every speech and shouting match.

On Wednesday, as Augusta National prepared to hold its first Masters tournament with female club members roaming the grounds, the former protest site along Washington Road was a club-owned parking lot.

The lot was identified with a large white sign: Lot W.

In all likelihood, the "W" did not stand for women.

The five-acre, or two-hectare, rectangular tract was nearly filled with cars and was guarded by a pair of sheriff's cars -- about 98 fewer than were there 10 years earlier.

Gone, too, was the sign then held by a Georgia woman that read, "Honk for Hootie," which was greeted by a cacophony of bleating car horns from a procession of passing cars.

Hootie is the nickname of William Johnson, the Augusta National chairman in 2003, who was Burk's antagonist and the club's staunch defender. Green baseball caps emblazoned with "Hootie," sold for $20, were a best-selling piece of apparel during Masters week that year, available on every street corner within sight of the club.

On Wednesday, there were no Hootie hats being sold along Washington Road, not even outside the Hooters. The street corner kiosks were playing to a different crowd, with $5 cigars and trinkets applauding Augusta's new favorite golfer, a defending champion named Bubba.

T-shirts with "Get your Bubba on," -- a tribute to the genial and risk-taking Bubba Watson, were a brisk seller at $15.

Augusta National welcomed its first two female members, the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the South Carolina financier Darla Moore, eight months ago, making the announcement in a brief news release. Local golf fans have moved on.

Inside the club's stately gates, Billy Payne was trying to move on, too. He was the first Augusta National chairman in at least 10 years to preside over the annual chairman's news conference without gritting his teeth in anticipation of another wave of questions about the club's membership policy.

Payne was instead almost giddy about the club's new members.

"It's just awesome," he said, and he later suggested that his words should be accompanied by exclamation points when he was talking about female club members.

"These two ladies have been very special, and it's just been delightful," he said. …

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