AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods didn't have to hit a single shot for the show to begin at this year's Masters.
As Woods played his final practice round Wednesday at soggy Augusta National, attention shifted from his bid for an unprecedented third straight green jacket to a cramped room that was filled with them.
More than 60 men, all wearing the coveted symbol in golf, flanked chairman Hootie Johnson in a stubborn defense of the club's all-male membership.
''If I drop dead this second, our position will not change on this issue,'' the 72-year-old Johnson said. ''It's not my issue alone.''
Still, it's an issue that already has made this a Masters unlike any other.
Sure, the azaleas and dogwoods are bursting with colors. Arnold Palmer still strolls the fairways, carried along by a legion of fans. And Woods, as always, is the heavy favorite.
But beyond the gates of Augusta National lurks a foreign sensation -- controversy.
About a half-mile down the street from Magnolia Lane, local officials have set aside a 5.1-acre grassy lot for demonstrations -- and not just for Martha Burk and her National Council of Women's Organizations, who have pressured the club for the last nine months to add its first female member.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition plan to protest with Burk.
They will be joined by two groups protesting Burk, another protesting Jackson, a one-man faction of the Ku Klux Klan supporting Augusta National and a man who calls his group ''People Against Ridiculous Protests.''
Johnson seemed oblivious to it all.
Anyone who thought Augusta National might cave in to pressure and allow a woman to wear a green jacket was met -- again -- by utter defiance during a 22-minute news conference.
''There may well come a time when we include women as members of our club, and that remains true,'' he said. ''However, I want to emphasize that we have no timetable, and our membership is very comfortable with our present status.''
Johnson cut loose his four sponsors to keep them out of the fray, leading to the first commercial-free broadcast of a sporting event on network television. He said the Masters could survive ''indefinitely'' without TV money.
''I think it's kind of sad,'' said Burk, who watched a telecast of the news conference. ''He's firmly planting his seat in the last century.''
Players have been dragged into the debate, too. Instead of being asked about the slick, contoured greens and the tricky 12th hole planted behind Rae's Creek, they are grilled on whether women should belong to the private club that hosts the public Masters.
Woods would like to see Augusta National admit women members, although the world's No. 1 player concedes he has no influence on club matters.
Johnson could not have agreed more.
''I won't tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn't tell us how to run our private club,'' Johnson said.
Woods certainly doesn't need any lessons.
Already the most dominant player in golf, Woods looks better than ever after taking two months off for surgery on his left knee.
Now, he is on familiar soil, a course he has mastered under every circumstance:
-- A 12-stroke victory in 1997 when he broke the course record at 18-under 270.
-- A two-stroke victory in 2001 under the pressure of trying to become the first player in history to win four straight professional majors.
-- A three-shot win last year when his top challengers wilted trying to catch him.
''It's not a golf course where I feel like I'm learning something every time I play it, or I have to go out there and learn something,'' Woods said. ''I feel as if I have a pretty good understanding of how to play each and every hole.''
He has played five tournaments in the last two months and won three times, including an 11-stroke victory at Bay Hill, a course set up for big hitters.
Augusta National figures to play longer than ever -- another advantage for Woods.
The sun disappeared Sunday morning and heavy rain has pounded Augusta National for the last three days, closing the golf course on Monday and limiting the amount of practice.
''It favors someone who is hitting the ball high and long and straight,'' Woods said. ''You've got to keep the ball in the fairway, but you've got to get it out there. These fairways are playing really soft right now, and they're picking up mud.''
The club already has said players won't be able to lift, clean and place their balls in the fairway. Mud on the ball makes it difficult to control where it's going, and control is everything at Augusta.
Crews will have to use hand mowers to cut only the landing areas in the fairway because of the soft ground. Already, workers were spreading anti-absorbent granules on the ground.
Players are using 2-irons and fairway metals to reach the par-4 18th green.
''It has played as long as it's ever played,'' Phil Mickelson said.
He is among a host of players who have the length and game to try to stop Woods from capturing another piece of history.
Ernie Els has moved up to No. 2 in the world by winning 11 times in the last 16 months, including the first two PGA Tour events. Right behind is Davis Love III, who is coming off a final-round 64 to win The Players Championship.
For Els and other players, the biggest distraction is not the controversy swirling around the club, it's the name that is so often atop the leaderboard.
''Let's face it,'' Els said. ''Tiger's going to be there.''
Unlike previous Masters, even that won't guarantee him being the only show in town.
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