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Newsmaker Johnson edges out Woods in 2002

December 28, 2002 12:38 IST
Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam were the dominant figures in global golf during 2002 but it is doubtful if either has managed to generate more column inches of publicity than Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson.

While Woods won the first two majors of the year -- and six titles in all -- and Sweden's Sorenstam piled up 13 tournament wins worldwide for one of the most successful seasons in the game's history, Johnson has struggled to keep out of the news.

Virtually every day since June, Johnson has come under increasing pressure to defend the male-only membership policy espoused by Augusta National Golf Club. The issue has become a great deal bigger than the game itself.

Thomas H. Wyman, former chief executive of CBS, resigned from Augusta National earlier this month and, a few days later, U.S. Treasury Secretary-nominee John Snow also decided to quit -- even though President Bush did not view the step as necessary.

Augusta National is the world's most exclusive golf club with some 300 of the richest and most influential power-brokers in the United States making up its elite membership.

In recent months, there have been numerous calls from assorted women's groups and newspaper columnists for some of the club's other heavyweight members to cancel membership -- with Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffet one of the biggest targets.

Augusta is host to one of golf's most prestigious events -- the annual U.S. Masters -- but no women are members and it was not until 1990 that the club, founded by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts in 1932, admitted its first black.

Even Tiger Woods has been drawn into the affair, a New York Times editorial in November calling upon the world number one to boycott next year's Masters in protest at Augusta's refusal to allow female members.

Quite rightly, Woods is incensed that he has been unfairly singled out while golfing legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer -- both honorary members at Augusta -- are barely asked for their own comments on the matter.

"I am the only player they are asking to do this specifically," said Woods, who will be bidding next April to become the first person to win the Masters three years in a row.

NEVER DONE

"They are asking me to give up the opportunity to do something nobody has ever done in the history of the Masters, so it is a little bit frustrating.

"Hopefully they can get (the issue) resolved in the near future."

The "Augusta affair" was effectively triggered in June this year when Martha Burk, chairman of the National Council of Women's Organisations (NCWO), sent a letter to Johnson urging him and his fellow members to invite a woman to join Augusta.

Johnson, however, refused to be pressured by an outside organisation into making a decision for a private club and a marked standoff has existed between the two parties ever since.

"We

will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated," Johnson said in a statement. "We do not intend to become a trophy in their (the NCWO's) display case."

He later said the NCWO had launched "a corporate campaign to force Augusta National to immediately invite women to join our club" and the decision was taken by Augusta to televise next year's Masters without commercials.

"We appreciate everything our media sponsors have done for us but, under the circumstances, we think it is important to take this step," Johnson said.

"Augusta National is NCWO's true target. It is therefore unfair to put the Masters media sponsors in the position of having to deal with this pressure."

Most opinion polls indicate that Americans are more or less divided on the issue and protesters acknowledge Augusta National's right, as a private club, to admit who they want.

Many people quickly forget, or perhaps do not even know, that Augusta routinely allows women to play as guests.

WRONG MESSAGE

But the counter argument suggests that hosting a major global event like the Masters leaves the organisers open to criticism, with the club's lack of women members sending out the wrong message about professional sport and American society.

It was not just the issue of Augusta's lack of women members that kept Johnson in the headlines for much of 2002 -- he also thrust himself forward on two other matters of policy.

In February, he suggested a "one-ball" rule might be independently phased in at the Masters to combat the effects of technology and power hitting in the modern game.

"I don't know what the solution is, but we have to have one," said Johnson, who became the first leading official to speak out on the issue. "We simply can't have a 350-yard carry."

Two months later, he was even more controversial when he imposed an age limit of 65 for Masters competitors from 2004 onwards.

Three former champions -- Gay Brewer, Billy Casper and Doug Ford -- all received letters in the post suggesting the 2001 Masters was to be their last. Barely a month later, though, Johnson admitted he had erred.

"Jack, we made a mistake," he was quoted as saying by six-times winner Jack Nicklaus.

Johnson has been vilified by many during 2002 but there is no doubt that he has been the most progressive chairman in the history of Augusta National during his fours years in charge.

He has increased minority membership at the club, overseen the greatest changes to the Augusta layout and has also streamlined the eligibility process for the Masters.

Forget, for the moment, Woods and Sorenstam. Johnson was named Golf World magazine's top newsmaker out of 100 during this past year. Given the facts and the unfolding events of the past 12 months, very few would argue with this selection.

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