With Tiger Woods set to pursue an unprecedented third straight Masters title beginning Thursday, Augusta National got another chance to make its case for having an all-male club.
With the spotlight on Hootie Johnson, the club chairman used his annual state-of-the-Masters address to make a no-apologies statement about the exclusive membership policy.
'Men like to get together with men every now and then, and women like to get together with women every now and then,' the 72-year-old Johnson said Wednesday. 'That's a simple fact of life in America.'
Martha Burk wants to change that part of American life, at least at Augusta National, though a federal appeals court turned down her request to protest Saturday outside the front gate.
'Clearly, they put this club over the Constitution,' she said. 'That ought to be a concern for everyone in this country.'
Burk and her supporters will be relegated to a grassy field about a half-mile from the main entrance to Magnolia Lane - unless she defies local authorities and risks arrest.
'If we ask folks to move on and they refuse, they are breaking the law,' Sheriff Ronald Strength said.
Johnson said his club isn't breaking any laws: It is simply a private club that has the final say on who gets in - and who stays out.
To dramatize the club's position, more than 60 green-jacketed men - about 20 percent of the membership - flanked the chairman during a news conference dominated by questions about membership policy.
'If I drop dead this second, our position will not change on this issue,' Johnson said. 'It's not my issue alone.'
At the Masters, it seems, some things never change.
The azaleas and dogwoods are bursting with colors. Arnold Palmer still strolls the fairways, carried along by a legion of fans. Woods, as always, is the heavy favorite.
And 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.
'There may well come a time when we include women as members of our club,' Johnson said. 'However, I want to emphasize that we have no timetable, and our membership is very comfortable with our present status.'
Burk watched a telecast of the news conference.
'I think it's kind of sad,' she said. '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.
Now, he can move into uncharted territory: three straight Masters victories. Only Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90) have won two in a row.
'It's not a golf course where I feel like I'm learning something every time I play it,' 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. The golf course was closed on Monday, and practice was limited the next two days. The popular par-3 contest was halted Wednesday when another storm rolled through east Georgia.
'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.'
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.
'Let's face it,' said Ernie Els, a four-time winner this year and expected to be one of the top contenders. 'Tiger's going to be there.'
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