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Johnson says Augusta's position won't change soon

The club chairman makes it clear that there are no plans to allow female members, even ''if I drop dead right now.''

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The issue that has dominated golf for nearly a year is not going away, even if Hootie Johnson does.

The Augusta National chairman made that clear Wednesday during a jam-packed news conference in which a majority of the questions were about the club's controversial men-only membership policy.

"If I drop dead right now, our position will not change on this issue," Johnson said. "It's not my issue alone. And I promise you what I'm saying is, if I drop dead this second, our position will not change."

More than 60 Augusta members in green jackets lined the room for Johnson's annual media briefing in which he said the club is united in its belief that it has a right to choose its members and that the issue will not hurt the 67th Masters, which begins today.

Johnson opened by saying women could one day be asked to be members at Augusta National, but that there is no timetable. "Our membership is very comfortable with our present status."

He also said he would have nothing further to add on the membership issue -- then spent most of the next 30 minutes doing just that.

Johnson, 72, an Augusta member since 1968 and a former bank executive from Columbia, S.C., has been at the center of the controversy since last summer when he responded to Martha Burk, chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, with a harshly worded letter saying the club would not be "bullied," among other things.

Burk had sought a dialogue on the subject of Augusta admitting its first woman. The ensuing debate has led to Burk forming a protest outside the club for Saturday, along with other forms of protests. Protesters will be banned from outside the front gate.

Johnson said he did not believe the protests or discussion about the issue would hurt the tournament.

"It's been maligned, but I don't think it's been damaged," Johnson said. "And I think that the Masters will continue to be one of the great sporting events of the world, next year and the year after and the year after and the year after."

When asked if past champions such as Tiger Woods have any influence -- he said he would like to see a female member admitted -- Johnson said: "I won't tell Tiger how to play golf if he doesn't tell us how to run our private club."

Johnson said the club could go without television sponsors "indefinitely," but that there is a chance they will return to the broadcast next year. Johnson dismissed the primary sponsors from this year's tournament to spare them from scrutiny in the wake of protests.

That means there will be less revenue for the club, which charges a fee for broadcast rights. But it won't affect charitable giving, which was more than $3-million last year, Johnson said.

Johnson was asked what his daughters have said to him about the membership issue, and he told a story.

"I have four daughters, and the other day my wife had a birthday," Johnson said. "And we have this lake place, and my wife and four daughters wanted to go to the lake place to celebrate her birthday. And they let me know that they really didn't want me to come along with them. And they didn't want their husbands to come along.

"We congregate there all the time, but they were going to do their thing. It's just a natural thing. And I don't know how to articulate that or how to explain it. But it's just been going on for centuries and centuries. Men like to get together with men every now and then and women like to get together with women now and then. And that's just a simple fact of life in America."

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