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Nicklaus on Augusta fence

He is unhappy the gender issue hasn't been resolved, but eschews involvement.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003

NAPLES -- As a champion golfer and designer of courses around the world, his views are clear and in the open.

As a member of one of America's most storied -- and now controversial -- golf clubs, those views become a bit murky.

Jack Nicklaus is among the most public of a very private Augusta National Golf Club membership. So the ongoing debate over whether the club should invite a woman member after 70 years is one that stops him faster than any golf rival ever did.

It is a subject he does not easily embrace, as has been the case with nearly all of those who are close to it.

But Nicklaus does offer hints.

"I sort of ride a little bit of a fence," he said Thursday. "I try not to offend. I'm a member there, but I also try not to impose my own feelings. Am I tired of hearing about it? Yeah. Am I unhappy it's not been resolved? Yes. It should have been resolved."

That's about as close as Nicklaus, 63, will come to saying he believes Augusta National, home of the Masters, should invite its first woman member.

The issue has raged since last summer, when Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson made public a letter he sent to Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women's Organizations, saying the club would not be threatened "at the point of a bayonet" into admitting women.

The two sides have sparred since, with Burk promising protests in Augusta, Ga., in April during tournament week.

In a preemptive move, Johnson relieved the Masters of its three corporate sponsors so they would not be pressured and took the unprecedented step of having the Masters televised commercial-free.

Throughout golf, the debate persists, but the most elusive people on the issue are the Augusta National members themselves, who typically defer to Johnson. The late Thomas Wyman, retired chairman of CBS, resigned his Augusta membership in protest.

Another member, John W. Snow, also resigned in light of his nomination and eventual confirmation as President Bush's secretary of the treasury.

Others have said little, if anything, including four-time Masters champion Arnold Palmer, another Augusta member.

"I am a member at Augusta. I'm proud to be a member at Augusta," Nicklaus said at the Club at TwinEagles, where he begins play today in the Champions Tour's ACE Group Classic.

"I'm a member at Augusta not because I'm a business icon or some genius. I'm there because I won six Masters. That's why I was invited. That's the same reason Arnold was invited. He won four Masters. It was a big part of our life. You know what my record is as it relates to golf clubs. ... I'm not part of the policymaking committee (at Augusta). I've never been asked. Doubt if I will be asked."

As designer of more than 200 courses, Nicklaus said he has always sought to have them open to every gender and race. Two he has ownership in, the Bear's Club in Jupiter and Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, have multiple women members.

"You know how I feel about Annika," said Nicklaus, referring to Annika Sorenstam, the LPGA star who on Wednesday accepted an invitation to play in a PGA Tour event. Nicklaus applauded the move. "But that (Augusta) is not my deal. Should I be involved in the middle of it? That's just like you asking Tiger (Woods) to be involved in the middle of it, just because Tiger won the Masters last year.

"Just because he won it, does that mean he's an expert on that. Just because I'm here in this press room, am I an expert on that? Of course I'm not."

Nicklaus said he understands why people believe he might have some influence. But Augusta officials have not sought his opinion, he said.

"If my opinion carries some weight, then I would have been asked," he said. "It obviously doesn't. And that's fine."

In fact, Nicklaus said, he's quite happy to stay out of it.

"It's a tough issue," he said. "It's not a tough issue for me. But it's a tough issue for them. And I don't know why it should be a tough issue. It shouldn't be a tough issue."

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