In recent months a group called the National Council of Women's Organizations, led by their spokeswoman Martha Burk, has been threatening Augusta National Golf Club and anyone even remotely associated with us for allegedly discriminating against women.
As the chairman of that club, I'd like to share some of my thoughts with you about the debate that has now spent several months meandering through the national press. Ms. Burk has misrepresented the issue.
For men of all backgrounds to seek a place and time for camaraderie with other men is as constitutionally and morally proper as it is for women to seek the same with women. Men and women have always occasionally sought out single-sex spheres in certain corners of their social lives, a habit that has always been a positive trapping of civil society. Women gather in book groups to study literature, in investment clubs to discuss the markets, or in fitness clubs to exercise. That they are able to make those choices is a fundamental freedom that most Americans believe is proper and important.
That standard goes both ways - that men seek the companionship of other men through sports and other leisure pursuits is equally desirable. The fact that Augusta National presents the Masters, a tournament admired worldwide, does not mean that the right to do so should be abandoned, let alone scorned.
If we wish to open all private organizations to men and women, as Ms. Burk and NCWO wish to do with Augusta National, the end is near for many uncontroversial and longstanding private groups. Women's colleges like Smith and Wellesley, historically black colleges like Spelman, the Girl Scouts of America, the Junior League, fraternities and sororities, would all have to be dissolved or radically changed from the single-sex profile that has become an essential part of their character and, indeed, the reason they are sought after. Do they, too, 'discriminate'?
At Augusta National, I and the other members enjoy playing golf with friends. Some of these members are business leaders who have been hailed for their work on behalf of women. At the same time, they enjoy the fellowship of this traditionally men's social club, one where golf serves as a diversion from life's more pressing business. I take seriously the original intent of the founder of this club, Bobby Jones, that there is virtue in a place of private retreat.
That was the original idea behind the tournament we present each year - to gather friends, by invitation, one week each year for sportsmanship. Mr. Jones invited his fellow golfers, and, out of regard for his legacy, the competition has become a major event in golf. Millions of Americans have enjoyed watching the tournament as patrons or on television. Over the last five years, the Masters has contributed over $15.5 million to charity, $3.3 in 2002 alone. Still, for more than seven decades, and during the several months a year we are open, the club has remained as it started, a place for friends to gather.
The notion that Augusta National is an enclave of sexist good old boys is ludicrous. Women regularly play the course, with no restrictions. All guests are treated the same, whether they are here to play golf or as patrons of the tournament. It is also incorrect to believe that Ms. Burk speaks for all women on this subject. She does not. In the latest issue of Golf for Women magazine columnist Sally Jenkins supports the right of Augusta National members to do as they please. Why, she asks, 'am I soft on Augusta? Because it is a tradition-bound, invitation-only private club, and I would defend both privacy and tradition with a gun.
Hundreds of letters from women have come to the club in support not only of our policy, but favoring our resolve not to be told what to do by an individual who knows nothing about us. A national survey that will be released tomorrow reveals that over 70 percent of Americans - men and women - support the club's right to make its own membership decisions. That is what we intend to do. Our members have historically shared a kindred spirit and a camaraderie that we view as being the heart and soul of our private club. Whether, or when, we have women as members is something that this club will decide alone, and in private.
How long Ms. Burk and her agenda will be given a voice is up to the media. But how long the public will pay attention is another question. Perhaps this kind of coercion is simply the way by which some political groups try to increase their own membership. It is for others to decide, from where they stand, whether threat-based tactics are appropriate.
But from here, it feels like some things are worth defending, and sometimes that means taking a stand. In my mind and in my heart, I know this is one of them.
(Hootie Johnson is chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club.)