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The Sunday Before the Augusta Storm

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Peter Lonard was among the early arrivals Sunday at the Masters, and he was surprised by what he saw.
 
It wasn't the two men selling ``I Support Hootie'' buttons on a street corner outside Augusta National Golf Club, or the three dozen people who gathered downtown to support the ``Women Against Martha Burk'' campaign.
 
Lonard was trying to figure out why so many people he didn't know were playing golf on a course that was four days away from hosting the first major championship of the year.
 
``I thought the course would be empty, maybe a couple of pros fluttering around and that would be it,'' Lonard said. ``That was quite a shock to the system.''
 
Sunday before the Masters is one of the busiest days of the season at Augusta National. Members and their guests -- which included five women in the span of an hour -- teed off in rapid succession once the rain stopped.
 
That meant Lonard, Scott Verplank, Shigeki Maruyama and the other 50 players who registered had to check with the starter and wait their turn.
 
Lonard didn't mind. The 34-year-old Aussie, who qualified for the Masters by winning in Australia late last year, got nervous just driving down Magnolia Lane.
 
``It's awesome, isn't it,'' he said from the putting greens, gazing across the lush, green fairways lined by towering Georgia pines. ``It's got a presence about it.''
 
This year's Masters is expected to have an added presence because of Augusta National's all-male membership.
 
It started last summer when Burk and her National Council of Women's Organizations urged club chairman Hootie Johnson to admit a female member so it didn't become an issue when the Masters was played.
 
Nine months later, it has become an issue.
 
The Richmond County Sheriff's Office has approved permits for the nine groups who plan to protest during the Masters.
 
That didn't include Vincent Vaughan and Tim Taylor, who received a permit to sell merchandise in a small tent on the corner of Washington and Berckmans Roads -- buttons that say ``I Support Hootie'' and cost $5. Even though Masters week doesn't start until Monday, business was brisk.
 
``This ain't about Martha,'' Vaughan said. ``It's all about supporting the golf tournament and what a great tournament this is.''
 
The other protests are not scheduled to begin until Thursday, and their demonstrations should cover just about everything.
 
Burk and the Rev. Jesse Jackson plan to demonstrate against the all-male membership. Burk wants to protest outside the gates, but officials said that would cause safety problems, and they approved a 5.1-acre site a half-mile away. The location is pending in court.
 
Two groups have received permits to protest against Burk. Another group plans to protest against Jackson. A one-man faction of the Ku Klux Klan, who lists Tiger Woods as his favorite golfer, supports Augusta National's rights to a private membership.
 
Another man wants to demonstrate in support of President Bush's war policy.
 
Augusta caddiesEpitomizing the circuslike atmosphere, the ninth protest permit went to Deke Wiggins and his ``People Against Ridiculous Protests.''
 
Those protests will start as early as Thursday, with most of the activity -- including Burk and Jackson -- scheduled for one-day demonstrations on Saturday.
 
Inside the gates, not much changed.
 
Caddies were dressed in the traditional white coveralls. Members who didn't play wore their green jackets. Johnson was spotted taking a quiet walk with his wife.
 
It still was enough to make Lonard catch his breath as he walked onto the golf course for the first time. He has never been to a tournament so early, but he made an exception for the Masters.
 
``I wanted to get here before all the hoopla,'' he said.
 
Related Links:
  • Augusta, Ga., Weather
  • 2003 Masters Tournament Mini-Site
  • Tournament Coverage
  • The Augusta National Membership Debate: A Chronology