By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) – Women will have their day at Augusta National on Saturday when the golf club, once ground zero in the gender equality battle, hosts the final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur (ANWA).
The word historic has been attached to the first ever competitive women’s round at the home of the Masters and the occasion will be given the full treatment, with NBC providing live coverage and Augusta National rolling out the pomp, ceremony and tradition that is its trademark.
The image of 30 women competing at a club which only seven years ago did not have a single female member is being held up as another small victory for equality.
Martha Burk, who put Augusta National’s all-male membership policy under a microscope, will not be celebrating mocking the ANWA as a public relations stunt but the 77-year-old activist says she and her group of protesters will take credit for sparking the little progress that has been made.
“I just don’t have any doubt about that at all if no public pressure or international spotlight had been shined on it thanks to us they would still be doing the same thing and getting away with it,” Burk told Reuters. “I’m sorry I’m just not buying it.
“People are going to say it is just sour grapes because she did not succeed in her crusade back in 2003 but I think what progress we are seeing is a direct result of what we did.”
What Burk did 16 years ago was put unwanted scrutiny on Augusta National Golf Club and its gender discrimination policy.
Founded by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts and opened for play in 1933, Augusta National became a sanctuary for some of the world’s most powerful men and for decades remained unmoved by outside forces and events.
It would be nearly 80 years until Augusta National relented in 2012, with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore becoming the first women to don the iconic Green Jackets that distinguish members and Masters champions.
Holding up Augusta National as a relic of the past, the National Council of Women’s Organisations spearheaded by Burk took their fight to the club’s doorstep during 2003 Masters week, drawing the attention of the world’s media.
Augusta National could not stop the protest but was able to keep it well away from the club’s doorstep, a court order restricting the event to a muddy field out of view of patrons and sponsors.
The protest failed to draw the numbers it hoped for, collapsing into a near farce with clowns and an Elvis impersonator getting as much attention as Burk herself.
While the mood was light, the seriousness of the issue was underscored by Burk having to demonstrate wearing a bullet proof vest while the FBI tapped her phone chasing down death threats.
“If social media had been around I would be dead,” Burk said. “I got so many death threats over Augusta, that day I was wearing a bullet proof vest and I had hired body guards because people were just rampant about it and I really do believe if social media had existed somebody would have tracked me down and shot me.”
One of the world’s most exclusive clubs, Augusta National operates in absolute secrecy. Even the smallest detail such as who dry cleans the Green Jackets is classified.
The club’s most heavily guarded secret, however, is its membership and when Burk was leaked a list of the 300 Green Jackets her group mounted a campaign urging consumers to boycott Masters sponsors.
Her organisation also facilitated two sex discrimination lawsuits against Smith Barney, a division of Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley, whose CEOs were Augusta members, and collected $79 million in settlements.
It was that legal action, Burk believes, that produced the first cracks in Augusta National’s resolve.
“I did not feel particularly defeated,” said Burk, reflecting on her 2003 protest. “I know people expected me to go crawl into a hole and never come out because we weren’t successful but we just kept trucking along.
“We had a list of all the members and the companies they were affiliated with and I think the club knew that they weren’t going to be the last two lawsuits.
“I knew you could not put that genie back in the bottle it was going to come up as it has every year.
“I knew that eventually something would come of it.
“Will they ever be true converts as opposed to Easter Sunday Christians? I don’t know but at least they are making the right noises.
“It is never going to go away for them.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)