The Masters -- One Month and Counting

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This years Masters Tournament raises a lot of questions.
 
How much will the protestors trample the azalea-like tranquility around Augusta, Ga.? Will those playing at Augusta National be affected by the outside influence? What will Hootie say? What will Martha and Jesse do?
 
And does anyone watching from home really care?
 
For those who might not know ' what with the influx of updates as to who is getting a demonstration permit ' there are historical implications inside the ropes in the 67th playing of this event April 10-13.
 
Tiger Woods is trying to become the first player in tournament history to don the green jacket three consecutive years.
 
Last year, he became just the third player to successfully defend his title. Jack Nicklaus first did so, in 1965 and 66. Nick Faldo did the same, in 1989 and 90. Nicklaus missed the cut in his three-peat bid in 67; Faldo tied for 12th in his.
 
The Masters normally makes headlines in its 51-week layoff because of course changes and qualification adjustments. But this go-around it has been one of the most debated and discussed championships in all of sport.
 
Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson started the spark that ignited into a wildfire when he responded to a letter sent by Dr. Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Womens Organizations.
 
Burk wanted a female member at the all-male private club. Johnson wanted none of that. Burk sent Johnson a private letter. Johnson sent Burk a public response.
 
Among other things, Johnson said he wouldnt be bullied by Burk. But his three-page letter didnt deter Burk; it only inspired her.
 
Burk has since been on a constant campaign to force Johnson into admitting its first non-male member. Jesse Jacksons Rainbow/PUSH Coalition has joined her crusade, while a splinter group ' or at least one man ' of the Ku Klux Klan has recently opposed her (not that Johnson welcomed the KKKs support).
 
The three-ringed circus, with Burk as the ringleader, has made its way to mainstream America, transcending the golf world. Debates have been contested, players have been polled and anyone who has ever picked up a golf club seems to have been asked his or her opinion.
 
In a poll conducted by Sports Illustrated, 49 percent of the players asked said that Augusta National should open its membership to a female. Twenty-three percent said no, while 28 percent said its up to them, not me.
 
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has supported that 28-percentile, stating the tournament, like all of the four major championships, is not run by the tour.
 
Regardless of whether you consider the matter one of gender equality, political correctness or freedom of assembly, there is a golf tournament to be held. And Woods, for one, says he wont worry about whats in the periphery.
 
Once it's time to play, it's time to play. And whether it's all the things going on outside the gates or whether it's the fact that I'm trying to win three in a row, all that goes away once it's time to tee up and go, Tiger said.
 
A total of 96 players have been invited to the 2003 tournament. The field will fluctuate, however, as others can still qualify. The winner of the Players Championship, the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list the week prior to the Masters, and the top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking the week prior to the Masters will qualify if not already exempt.
 
Previously, the top three on the tours money list as well as the top 50 in the world ranking four weeks prior to the seasons first major would be granted an invitation.
 
Of course, the course has been altered from a year ago. Among them, the tee on the par-4 fifth was moved back and the fairway bunkers were extended about 80 yards closer to the green. It is now 315 yards to carry the two bunkers. The fairway and the hazards were shifted right to increase the dogleg characteristic of the hole. The fifth now measures 455 yards, with the overall yardage extending to 7,290.
 
But thats tournament talk ' something that hasnt been prevalent since Woods slipped both arms into his size 42-long jacket.
 
Perhaps soon ' for at least four days ' the conversational tide will turn from protestors to par-breakers, from harping to history, from grandstanding to golf.
 
Related Links:
  • 2003 Masters Tournament Mini-Site
  • Tournament Coverage
  • The Augusta National Membership Debate: A Chronology