In early winter, the course at the Augusta National Golf Club bears a faint promise of the Oz-like spectacle of magnolias, azaleas, and piercing green rye that it will become in April, when the club conducts its annual Masters tournament. In December, the Bermuda on the fairways is going dormant and brown, creating a seed base for the rye that was planted in the fall; the azaleas are sleeping, and the East Georgia weather can be gray and raw. It was on such a day that I visited the club this winter, and, except for a foursome efficiently making its way to the green at No. 9, there was scarcely a golfer in sight. One of the charms of membership at Augusta National is that, during the season, from October until the end of May, the grand old course is always available for play. The club, which is a hundred and forty miles east of Atlanta, has some three hundred members, and, as most of them reside elsewhere (a third of them live in the New York area, California, and Florida), there is never any difficulty securing a tee time. In fact, there are no tee times at Augusta National, as such; players stroll from the clubhouse to the first tee, as they wish. “There’s never anybody there,” a New York member told me. “It’s perfect.”

Shortly before noon, I was escorted up a spiral staircase into the club’s library, a room that, a few months hence, will be the scene of one of the rarest gatherings in sports. On the Tuesday evening of tournament week, April 8th, Tiger Woods will preside over the annual meeting of the Masters Club, a dinner hosted by the defending tournament champion to which only past Masters winners are invited. The Augusta National has through the decades cultivated a museum-like air; the walls of the hundred-and-fifty-year-old building that houses the club are covered with portraits of golf totems (some painted by Dwight Eisenhower, who was a member), and mahogany-and-glass cabinets hold such treasures as the wood-shafted sticks used by one of the club’s founders, Bobby Jones, when he won golf’s Grand Slam in 1930. Woods hosted the dinner last year, and, at twenty-six, he was by a decade the youngest man in the group; the oldest was ninety-year-old Byron Nelson, who won the first of his two Masters tournaments in 1937.

The Masters is golf’s most esteemed event, and, for Woods especially, Augusta has been a watershed venue. He won his first major title at the Masters in 1997, at the age of twenty-one, and he did so in a fashion that suggested the arrival of the greatest golfing talent since Jones himself. In becoming the youngest Masters champion, Woods embarrassed the old course, as well as the rest of the field, setting tournament records for the lowest score–270–and the widest margin of victory: twelve strokes. (Partly in response, the club undertook a significant design change, adding length to several holes.) But the lasting meaning of Woods’ victory was sociological: his arrival as golf’s dominant player came just seven years after Augusta National accepted its first black member.

As Woods prepares to defend his Masters title this spring, he has much at stake, including his hope of becoming the first player to win three consecutive tournaments at Augusta. Once again, the golf itself may seem almost an afterthought. Woods is already resigned to the fact that the big story at Augusta this year will be the controversy over the club’s exclusion of women from its membership, a dispute instigated by Martha Burk, a feminist activist based in Washington, who has been campaigning against the club since the summer. Burk insists that she will not relent until Augusta National admits a woman member, and the club, invoking its privacy rights, vows to do so only on its own timetable, if ever. Burk, in turn, hints of massive protests at this year’s tournament, including columns of women marching in green burkas–symbolically equating the green-blazered men of Augusta with the Taliban.

The prospect of those excitements seemed quite distant on my visit, although, as it turned out, the day was a portentous one for the club. The big windows of the library, next to Ike’s old desk (with its green leather inlay), offered a good view of the course, and even though the sun had broken through, the only souls I could see were the groundskeepers, fussing the course to a Disneyesque perfection. A fire was going in the fireplace on one side of the room, and, on another side, a television set was tuned to an all-news channel. There were no members present, but the countenance of one particular club member was flickering on the television screen–that of John Snow, who had just been nominated by President Bush to become the next Secretary of the Treasury. The news report was followed by a telecast of the daily White House press briefing, and, as always, Ari Fleischer, the press secretary, began the session by summarizing the day’s big events: Snow’s nomination, the signing of a strategic agreement with Tajikistan, and the President’s meeting with the Prime Minister of Finland. Then Fleischer took his first question from the press.

“Is the new Treasury nominee still a member of Augusta?” the reporter asked. “And, if so, doesn’t that present a problem?”

“Mr. Snow is in the process of stepping down from many of the boards and clubs that he belongs to,” Fleischer replied. “In this case, he is resigning his membership there.”

The next question was also about Augusta, as was the third. Finally, Fleischer ended that line of inquiry by declaring, unconvincingly, that Snow had decided on his own to quit Augusta, that the White House hadn’t pressured him, and that the President did not consider membership in the club to be a disqualifying factor in prospective Presidential appointees.

The next day, I had lunch in New York with Martha Burk. She is an amiable woman of sixty-one, with a sweet smile and a pleasant Texas drawl that disguise a keen instinct for the political jugular. At lunch, she ordered crab cakes, sent back the potato salad (“I’m still on the Atkins,” she explained), and then pronounced the meaning of John Snow’s resignation from Augusta National.

“Augusta National has now become emblematic of sex discrimination,” she said. “I’ve already won. Even if Augusta National never admits a woman, people will never again look at it without thinking, Discrimination. If I got off the stage today, the club is already tainted, the tournament is tarnished, and that will remain. Once you’ve reached the very highest levels of government, as it did yesterday, and it comes to the attention of the President of the United States, it’s over, folks.”

Burk describes herself as a “political psychologist,” which is to say that she has advanced degrees in psychology but her career has been feminist politics. Although she was not widely known publicly before her Augusta campaign, she was well connected within the national feminist establishment, and is a practiced hand at the cultural battlefront. Hers is an old-line, fundamentalist feminism, rooted in the consciousness-raising ethos of the nineteen-sixties, which later provided the shock troops for such engagements as the 1986 abortion-rights march on Washington, and the Senate confirmation fights over the Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. She likens the Augusta campaign to the Thomas-Anita Hill hostilities in its importance to the feminist cause, and although the stakes seem hardly commensurate, the character and tone of the present undertaking are as passionately overheated. The aggrieved party in the Augusta struggle, she says, “is the entire female gender,” and the issue of female membership at the club “is not about one woman in one golf tournament–it’s about how guys can use you, go after your dollars, profess these public values, and then privately devalue you as a person, as an employee, as a stockholder.”

 

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