20 years after protests, women still look ahead


AUGUSTA, Georgia—It started with a letter that Martha Burk figured would never see the light of day.

When she mentioned the all-male membership at Augusta National, the National Council of Women’s Organization didn’t even vote on whether to take action.

“It was a very casual conversation at the end of a board meeting,” Burk said in a recent interview. “I had found out about this club and said I was thinking about writing a letter. Everyone said, ‘Fine, write the letter.’ I never expected my letter to go anywhere. I thought in a few years I might have followed up with a phone call.”

There was no need.

Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, wrote a three-sentence reply to her that club matters were private. The next day he issued a scathing, 932-word statement to the media that defended the rights of a private club and said a woman joining Augusta National would be on the club’s timetable and “not at the point of a bayonet.”

So began the biggest controversy in Masters history.

It culminated 20 years ago with a rally during the third round. Burk, wearing a bulletproof vest under a green golf shirt, spoke to about 40 supporters in a lot a half-mile away from Magnolia Lane because authorities denied her permission to protest across from the club.

And then it all went away, or so it seemed. Television sponsors returned in 2005, after the Masters had cut them loose to keep them out of the fray. It wasn’t until nine years after the protest that Augusta National announced former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore had accepted invitations to join.

“We did not succeed in our goal to get the club open to women at the time,” Burk said. “They waited a long enough time that we wouldn’t get credit. But had we not done that, I think there still would not be women members.”

During the course of this battle, Burk was invited to be part of a Golf World magazine cover. The headline was “Year of the Women.” She was among five women on the cover as the top newsmakers of the year, and had no way of knowing then that one of them—Suzy Whaley—would go on to become the first female president at the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of America.

The landscape has changed over the last 20 years, but not quickly enough for some who still see a great gender disparity. Augusta National has at least six female members wearing green jackets during the Masters.

The most noticeable—and more relevant—change is outside the club.

Two years after Augusta National had its first female members, Whaley in 2014 was elected secretary of the PGA of America, a 28,000-strong organization of club professionals. She rose to president four years later. Diana Murphy in 2016 became only the second president in the 121-year history of the US Golf Association.

The Royal & Ancient Golf Club voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to accept women for the first time, and later removed Muirfield from the British Open rotation when the historic golf club in Scotland rejected mixed membership.

Muirfield held a second vote in 2017 and changed with the times. The club known as the “Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers” that dates to 1744 not only has female members, it hosted the Women’s British Open last year for the first time.

The USGA announced in 2007 the US Women’s Open would be going to Pebble Beach, the most iconic venue of the men’s US Open. That becomes reality this summer. Also on the USGA calendar is a second staging the US Open and the US Open Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in consecutive weeks.

“If you look at the world, if you look at golf, we’ve come a long way,” Whaley said. “I like to paraphrase Condi Rice. She always talks about suffrage and things that happened before. But also look forward. What can I do to make it better for those who come behind us?”

Image credits: AP

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