The confirmation battles over Bork and Thomas introduced into politics a new strategy–that of attaching to the opponent such opprobrium that neutral parties, or even those favorably disposed to the subject, come to recognize a position of opposition as being the safest course. In the past six months, the Augusta National Golf Club has been subjected to a “Borking” of the first order, its reputation cascading so steeply and so swiftly that the tacticians in a conservative Republican Administration now deem membership in the club a taboo. This unexpected new litmus test (Ari Fleischer’s objections notwithstanding) can only be attributed to Martha Burk’s campaign; just a year earlier, William S. Farish, a member of Augusta, was nominated and confirmed as Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s without a hint of concern over his golf-club membership.
Even Burk did not guess, when she sat down to write a letter of protest to Augusta National last June, that her effort would cause such a national commotion. As it turned out, she was lucky in choosing her cause–a men’s club that is at once internationally famous and obsessively secretive–and even luckier in the man who embodies the club. In the Augusta National chairman William W. (Hootie) Johnson, Martha Burk found the perfect adversary.
When Johnson received Burk’s letter, he brooded over its meaning, and over how the club should respond. He had never heard of Martha Burk, or of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which Burk chaired, but he believed that he knew political extortion when he saw it. Burk’s assertion in her four-paragraph note that “Augusta National and the sponsors of the Masters do not want to be viewed as entities that tolerate discrimination” seemed to Johnson a sly threat to the tournament’s sponsors; Burk’s urging the club to accept women “now, so that this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year” seemed nothing less than a deadline. Johnson solicited the views of a close circle of advisers, who confirmed his impression that Augusta National had been targeted for a political shakedown, and that a public campaign against the club, its members, and the Masters sponsors was coming unless the club immediately capitulated to the demands of Martha Burk, whoever she was. Capitulation, or even negotiation, wasn’t a possibility.
Johnson wrote Burk a three-sentence reply, saying that he found her letter both “offensive and coercive,” and concluding that “any further communication between us would not be productive.” Then Johnson did something that he would very soon have cause to regret: he went public.
Johnson released to the press an eighteen-paragraph statement that was crafted in the tone of an expose. He began by announcing that the club had “been contacted by Martha Burk,” who wanted the club “to radically change our membership.” He mentioned Burk’s deadline, and said, “The message delivered to us was clearly coercive.” Johnson proceeded to outline, in an almost weirdly prescient passage, how he imagined the campaign against Augusta would unfold. Augusta’s members would be depicted “as insensitive bigots,” the Masters-tournament sponsors would be threatened by “boycotts and other economic pressures,” there would be anti-Augusta picketing, sloganeering, and Internet activity. “We could also anticipate,” Johnson added, in what would prove to be a monumental understatement, “op-ed articles and editorials.”
“We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case,” Johnson concluded. “There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.”
Hootie Johnson had conjured an ominous vision of a harridan army, poised to swoop into battle at Martha Burk’s command. The reality of Burk’s operation is rather less imposing. The National Council of Women’s Organizations has a minuscule individual membership. It is more like a public-policy trade association, an umbrella structure to which several dozen women’s groups belong. Some of these member groups are established organizations of national reputation and influence (NOW is a member), and others basically consist of one woman with a laptop and a cause (International Black Women for Wages for Housework suggests itself). Burk’s council receives relatively little funding, mostly from foundation grants. Burk is headquartered in a small room on the tenth floor of an aging Washington office building; she is not paid by the council, and her only full-time paid employee is a pleasant young woman with a nose ring named Rebecca, who sits at the front desk.
Burk points out that she did not go public with her protest of Augusta National; Hootie Johnson did. And she insists, credibly, that she did not initiate the scores of media interviews she has since granted (“I didn’t have to”). Johnson’s letter arrived by overnight mail at Burk’s office on July 9th, and within ten minutes her telephone rang. It was the Associated Press golf writer Doug Ferguson. Burk told him that she had tried “the olive-branch approach” with Hootie, but “he’s unwilling to talk.” Johnson’s reply to her letter, she said, “is insensitive at best and confrontational at worst.” The A.P. story described Johnson’s public statement as “angry” and “defiant,” a tone that hinted of the coverage to come.
In her contest with Augusta National, Burk’s only real leverage, besides her limitless availability to the press, was public opinion, and polls showed that most Americans either supported the club or were indifferent to its policies. But Burk was aiming at a much smaller target–the columnists, editorialists, reporters, and others who compose what Burk calls “the thinking class.” She knew that Augusta National would yield only when a critical mass of members, sponsors, or affiliated organizations (such as the P.G.A.) were pushed beyond their level of shame tolerance; and the professional opinion shapers are the dispensers of shame. In that arena, Burk, a skilled polemicist, successfully framed a debate that Hootie Johnson could not possibly win. While Johnson spoke of the right to freely associate, and likened his millionaires’ golf club to the Boy Scouts, Burk posed her dispute with Augusta National as a matter of basic civil rights.
Burk’s battle with the golf club struck a particular chord at the New York Times, which, at the direction of the executive editor, Howell Raines, was unambiguous in its acceptance of Burk’s premise that Augusta was guilty of bigotry. A page-one story conjectured that the club has no women members because they might spoil the fun of “bourbon, cigars, and ribaldry.” The same story speculated that Augusta members settled for sexism, because “no prominent, powerful business leader can afford to be labeled a racist.” As others picked up the cue, the portrait emerged of Augusta National as a sort of gathering place for neo-Confederate roues, stuck in arrested development–“A Boys’ Club Full of Little Rascals,” a Washington Post headline writer called it. The greatest portion of odium, though, was reserved for Johnson–the “pig-headed face of sexism,” as a Miami Herald reporter referred to him. It did not help that Johnson, at seventy-one, is still known as Hootie, a name unfamiliar to the thinking class.
The Augusta National Golf Club was founded for, and by, wealthy, connected New Yorkers who wanted a place to play winter golf. When the club was created, in 1932, sixty of its sixty-three members lived in New York, including its co-founder and driving force, Clifford Roberts.
Roberts was a Wall Street man (a partner in the firm that became Dean Witter Reynolds) who had a clever investment touch, and a memorably disagreeable nature. He would become, as the golf writer Curt Sampson noted, Augusta National’s “designated bastard,” the progenitor of the unyielding rigidity that through the years has been the club’s strength as well as its bane. It was Roberts who put together the deal that built Augusta National, and made it an invitation-only national club. It was Roberts who dreamed up the Masters tournament, and who gave it its grandiose name. But it was Bobby Jones who brought Augusta National its lasting and essential characteristic, as a golf shrine.
In the nineteen-twenties, Jones embodied golf’s chivalric ideal. He was a Southern gentleman, at a time when the term carried no irony. Jones was handsome, gracious, literate–and, never forsaking his amateur status, he played golf like a dream. In a remarkable eight-year run, Jones won thirteen of the twenty-one major championships he entered, climaxing in his grandest achievement–winning what was then golf’s Grand Slam. In 1930, Jones successfully defended his U.S. Open title, and also won the British Open and the U.S. and British Amateur championships. Then, at the age of twenty-eight, he announced that he was quitting competitive golf to take up the practice of law, and to undertake the building of the Augusta course, which would be a showplace for the game. It was so fitting a culmination that a Times editorialist was moved to verse: “With dignity he quits the memorable scene/on which he nothing common did, or mean.”
In Augusta, Jones and Roberts found a property that perfectly suited their ambitions–a three-hundred-and-sixty-five-acre antebellum indigo plantation that had been turned into an ornamental nursery. Jones designed the course with Dr. Alister Mackenzie, the Bobby Jones of golf architects, who was completing Cypress Point at the time. There was relatively little rearranging of the earth in constructing the Augusta course; the par-5 No. 13 was essentially laid out by nature, with Mackenzie having only to build a green on the other side of a stream. Jones believed that his course should be challenging but playable; the fairways are wide, and, even now, there is little rough to punish errant tee shots. There are many courses more difficult than Augusta, and many that are more spectacularly contrived, but none are more elegant.
Augusta National opened for member play in December, 1932. At the club’s first meeting, the decision was made that there would be no more meetings. Augusta National would be an autocracy. Bobby Jones would serve as president, but all effective power would reside in the club chairman, Clifford Roberts. The chairman’s decisions were without appeal, and for the next forty-five years Augusta National and its increasingly important Masters tournament were answerable to no authority but Roberts.
That is what accounts for Augusta’s singularity. Augusta National has a peculiar culture, with its own customs and traditions, even its own terminology. The two halves of the course are called the “first nine” and the “second nine,” because Jones believed that “front side” and “back side” had awkward anatomical connotations. There are no “sand traps” at Augusta, only bunkers, and the stuff in them isn’t sand but feldspar, a white, talc-like silicate powder that is trucked in from North Carolina. Those golf worshippers who reverentially line the fairways each year for the Masters (having managed to acquire a “badge,” rather than a “ticket”) are “patrons,” not customers. Some aspects of the Augusta culture are less attractive than others. Although most of the members were Northern capitalists, the club cultivated an Old South atmosphere; the only blacks around the place were in service, carrying clubs or serving fare, and the Masters did not invite a black player until Lee Elder made the list, in 1975.
Augusta’s rigidity is also the source of its enduring allure. The Masters is easily the least corrupted major event in sports. Roberts and Jones were something close to phobic about commercialization, as have been their successors, carefully limiting corporate sponsorship, banning commercial displays, controlling every aspect of every CBS telecast for forty-five years. While the N.F.L. has unabashedly become a made-for-television production, and baseball allows its World Series to become a promotional vehicle for network entertainment shows, Augusta maintains de-facto veto power over CBS’s broadcasters and allows a relatively tiny commercial window of four minutes per hour. This year, because of the controversy over women, the Masters will be televised without commercials, with the club making up for the lost revenue itself–something that only Augusta could, or would, do.
Jones and Roberts exerted a presence at the club and its tournament until the nineteen-seventies. Jones died in 1971 of the spinal disease syringomyelia, which had afflicted him much of his life, and Roberts ran the club until 1976, when he finally named a successor and stepped down as chairman. The next year, a few weeks before the club opened for the season, Roberts rode out onto the course on his golf cart and killed himself with a .38 revolver. His eyeglasses, briefcase, and even his old Funk & Wagnall’s dictionary are preserved in a display case in the clubhouse.
The only member of Augusta National whom I knew even slightly was Thomas H. Wyman, a former chairman of CBS. Wyman’s life had seemed the very profile of an Augusta club member: an education at Andover, Amherst, and Lausanne, followed by top positions at Pillsbury, Polaroid, CBS, and S. G. Warburg. Tom Wyman loved golf, and he considered the Masters and its host club national treasures. He told me that he remembered the exact moment in the late seventies when he received the telephone call from Jackson Stephens, one of Roberts’ successors as chairman, telling him he would be invited to join the club. Wyman was so excited that he thought it was a prank call, and almost said so; he wanted to ask how much it would cost, then he stopped himself, mindful that the club can be brutally punitive in cases of bad form. One prospective member asked if he could pay his fee in two installments, and he never heard from the club again.