2004: ‘Battle’ a bit drawn out

Hollywood couldn’t have dreamed up a better cast of characters than the real-life zanies found in Martha Burk’s nine-month battle to admit a woman member to Augusta National Golf Club.

You have the aging Southern gentleman (Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson) determined to preserve tradition at his highfalutin hideaway for the rich and famous; the radical feminist (Burk) who won’t take no for an answer; a myriad of well-known media types scrambling for the scoop; and a group of big-name corporate executives doing their best to keep their names out of the whole sordid mess. And that’s before you even get to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an Imperial Wizard from a Ku Klux Klan splinter group and a host of zealots who showed up at the protest pit on that fateful Masters Saturday.

Sounds like a good idea for a book. Only problem is, we already know how “The Battle for Augusta National” turns out – and the real-life conclusion, of course, was a dud.

Author Alan Shipnuck wasn’t shy about research. He conducted more than 200 interviews and read what seems like at least 10 times that many newspapers. Some of it was necessary and revealing. Much of it was not.

To be sure, Shipnuck’s book produces a few interesting and exclusive tidbits. Perhaps most noteworthy and entertaining are the behind-the-scenes schemes and machinations of Augusta National consultant Jim McCarthy, a no-holds-barred Washington PR flak, who, looking back, may have been the main reason Augusta came out relatively unscathed in its battle with Burk. (How many people are focusing on the club’s lack of a woman member this year?)

But Shipnuck, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, relies far too heavily on newspaper excerpts to tell the tale, especially in the first several chapters. A few would be fine. But these go on ad nauseum. There’s too much on The New York Times and the downfall of executive editor Howell Raines (and five wasted pages on a petty feud between USA Today’s Christine Brennan and Golf Digest’s Marcia Chambers.)

That isn’t the only example of overreporting. There’s also the combined seven pages on the backgrounds of ACLU attorney Jack Batson and federal district judge Dudley H. Bowen, including numerous graphs on Bowen’s confirmation hearings – in 1979!

Thankfully – assuming the reader makes it through all of the above – the prose gets progressively stronger.

Shipnuck skillfully analyzes the embarrassing unraveling of Burk’s campaign, and the description of the climactic – make that anticlimactic – Saturday protest is hilarious. The final two chapters provide updates on the principal characters, reveal the battle’s winners and losers (“The answer is, Everybody lost”) and offers insight about the future of women at Augusta National.

Cut out 75 to 100 pages of raw newspaper copy and irrelevant information, and it would be a good read.

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