2002: As Augusta National opens, some break ranks

Augusta National Golf Club, closed since May 18, reopens for play Oct. 10. It’s a good bet that the club’s handling of the gender equity issue will be a dominant topic of conversation among members in town for opening day.

So, too, will be the breaking of ranks by some Augusta members, including Harold “Red” Pohling, former president of Ford Motor Co., and Citigroup chairman Sanford I. Weill.

“I think there will be a woman member,” Pohling told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But when, I really don’t know. . . You would hope that it would be resolved shortly.”

Weill, in a statement from Citigroup, offered support to the National Council of Women’s Organizations’ efforts to persuade the club to offer membership to a woman.

Their stance is further evidence that Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson is feeling increased pressure from influential club members to resolve the quarrel with the NCWO. Historically, Augusta National members have been strongly discouraged from discussing club policies or politics with outsiders.

The New York Times reported that several Augusta National members, speaking on condition of anonymity, said other executives are pressing the club on the issue.

“There are maybe 20 members who feel that way, and a lot of them are highly motivated chief executives,” The Times quoted a longtime club member as saying.

Meanwhile, NCWO chairwoman Martha Burk, whose letter to Augusta National sparked the controversy, appears content to ride her campaign’s momentum.

“I’m inclined to just let things perculate right now,” she told Golfweek Oct. 7. Burk said she would continue an NCWO letter-writing campaign soliciting support from corporate CEOs who are Augusta members.

Burk was undaunted by a public relations setback when Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lopez said she doesn’t mind Augusta National’s long-standing policy prohibiting women from becoming members.

“You know, I hate that that has come up because I have always respected the tradition at Augusta,” Lopez told the Albany (Ga.) Herald. “And it was never a tradition of male or female to me, it was always just tradition.”

Lopez also said she’s not fighting for women’s membership but would accept if she were invited to join.

Said Burk: “I think that as the most prominent women’s golfer of the last generation, her support for our campaign could go a long way.”

Earlier in the week, Citigroup sent a statement to the NCWO, making Weill the first corporate executive to openly favor the group’s bid.

Weill “expressed his views to the Augusta National Golf Club and will continue to engage in what he hopes will be a constructive dialogue on this issue, toward an objective that he believes we share with your organization,” Citigroup said in the statement signed by the company’s director of public affairs. “However, he respectfully intends to keep this dialogue private.”

Burk said she would like an assurance that an agreement will be reached soon.

Augusta officials declined to comment on Weill’s statement. Johnson is recovering from heart surgery.

– Staff and wire reports

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