Too soon to announce 'checkmate'

Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2002

Martha Burk knows even less about chess than she does about golf.

Comforting thought. Especially if you play chess.

So even though Hootie Johnson believes their game is just about over, and even though he's got a meaningless survey to back him up, you won't hear Augusta National's chairman cackling, ''checkmate!'' anytime soon.

For one thing, Burk wouldn't get it. For another, she's telling anybody who will listen this thing is far from over.

''People have been making plans at my request to go down there,'' she said, referring to next April's Masters. ''It sounds like if nothing changes, there probably will be pickets and demonstrators.''

These two have been bickering for months over nothing more important than whether a rich woman should be invited to join a golf club that in its previous 69 years was made up entirely of rich men (and until a dozen years ago, all of them white).

It's hardly been the principled fight both sides claim. But it's been entertaining throughout. Along the way, Burk labeled Johnson an out-of-touch old fogey and he countered by calling her a shameless publicity hound. These days, if Johnson refers at all to Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, it's always as ''this woman'' or ''that woman.''

He topped off a well-orchestrated media blitz with an editorial of his own Tuesday reiterating Augusta's two major points: There will be a Masters next spring, and there won't be a woman member anytime soon.

''How long Ms. Burk and her agenda will be given a voice is up to the media,'' he wrote in The Wall Street Journal. ''But how long the public will pay attention is another question.''

Just as in a handful of interviews this week, Johnson argued his club's position better than he had in July. Back then, he responded to a letter from Burk by suggesting she butt out of Augusta's business and followed it up by dashing off three more pages to the media depicting the NCWO as humorless harpies.

In one memorably overwrought image, Johnson said he felt threatened, even at ''the point of a bayonet.''

Fact is, Burk is more a needle in a haystack most days, lobbying behind the scenes on issues like welfare reform, Social Security and women in the military. The day after Johnson ripped her, she got more publicity than she could generate in a lifetime. She knew so little about golf that early on in the fight she proposed moving the tournament somewhere else. Even so, Burk headed for the flame like a moth.

''I would kill,'' she said last month, ''for this kind of coverage on our other issues.''

That's the strange thing about casting Johnson as the heavy. He understands those issues better than most men and has more progressive credentials to boot. He helped raise four daughters. He supported black legislators well before any contemporaries in South Carolina did. He was instrumental in helping name the business school at his alma mater after financier Darla Moore.

But Johnson has only one golf club to sacrifice, and he's not about to hand it over to Burk.

After his initial misstep, he quickly put the Masters' sponsors beyond her reach, then stifled a smile when CBS and the PGA Tour politely declined to join Burk's crusade. All the while, mail was piling up in his office and running something like 9-1 in his favor.

And so Johnson started thinking: if this were a golf match, he'd be up three holes with three to play; if this were a chess match, he'd be calling out ''check'' every time Burk maneuvered one of her pieces on the board.

''I don't know chess. Does that mean I'm stymied?'' she said. ''No. It only means that Augusta will further tarnish its image.''

To be sure, there's nothing remotely illegal or immoral about single-sex organizations like the ones Johnson commended: Smith College, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, even fitness centers with names like Wanda's Workout World.

But he also knows Augusta National long ago became more than just a golf club for men -- for reasons he pointed out himself. The people sharing the camaraderie are among the most powerful and influential businessmen in the world and the tournament they put on has become one of the most prestigious in the world, precisely because it's staged on a course only a few hundred people will ever play.

Augusta was also once a symbol of the brand of exclusivity practiced in both golf and the South for way too long. That's why Tiger Woods winning his first major there in 1997 -- nearly 50 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier -- bypassed the sports section and made the front page of most newspapers.

And Burk will try almost anything to make that leap again. Despite early failures, she promised to continue confronting club members, the corporations that employ them, tournament sponsors, CBS and the PGA Tour.

''It creates a story it didn't need to create, where the attention will not be 100 percent on the golf tournament. That's unfortunate for the tournament,'' she said, ''and for golf itself.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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