A Tempest in a Teapot, Or Something More?

A Review of The Battle For Augusta National


Friday, May. 28, 2004
Alan Shipnuck, The Battle For Augusta National (Simon & Schuster 2004)

In the spring of 2002, Martha Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO) sent a letter to Hootie Johnson, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, the host of the Masters Tournament. The letter was one of many that Burk sends every year to leaders of prominent organizations that Burk feels aren't quite up to snuff on the issue of including women in their activities. In this case, Burk noted the fact that Augusta National had never admitted a female member, and requested a dialogue with Johnson and Augusta National so that "this is not an issue when the tournament is staged next year."

Johnson reacted like a scalded cat, and sent back a letter - which he helpfully released to the media along with a press release - stating that "There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet."

The rest was history: for the next year, the issue of Augusta National's membership was the leading story in the golf world. The story culminated with a protest at the 2003 Masters, attended not only by Burk and her followers but also by an eclectic group of attendees that fell on all sides of the issue, including one man who claimed to be the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of Ku Klux Klan. In short, it was a circus.

In the wake of these events comes Alan Shipnuck's new book, The Battle for Augusta National: Hootie, Martha and the Masters of the Universe. Shipnuck, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who primarily covers the golf world, has exhaustively catalogued the events involved in the controversy over whether Augusta National would admit a female member.

The book is very well done, but at the end of the day, the reader can't help but wonder if there was quite enough to this story to require a 334 page book.

The Story of How Johnson's Letter Raised the Issue's Profile

Shipnuck essentially follows the controversy chronologically, beginning with the first questions to Johnson about Augusta National's membership -- most of which were posed by Christine Brennan, a reporter for USA Today. Eventually, Burk got wind of the discussion and sent what was almost a form letter to Johnson.

Almost everyone seems to agree that if Johnson had simply not replied to Burk, or sent a low-key "I'll get back to you about this" letter, the issue might have continued in its low-visibility status; even Brennan admits that she was tired of raising the issue. But Johnson's angry response and colorful language ("We do not intend to become a trophy in [the NCWO's] display case") changed all of that forever.

Nuanced Characterizations Reveal the Real People Involved

Shipnuck does an excellent job covering all of the events involved in this "fight." Most impressively, he portrays each participant as a complex person, even though many of the participants cry out for caricature: Johnson as the unrepentant male chauvinist, Burk as the strident feminist, and J.J. Harper as a Klansman.

In fact, all three -- as well as many others discussed in the book -- are far from as simple as one would expect. This is especially true of Johnson, who has an incredible record of supporting civil rights causes. For example, in 1970, as treasurer of the South Carolina Democratic Party he ensured the election of the first black state senators since Reconstruction. As a bank president, he hired the first black tellers (at a time when none of his competitors had done so).

These are only a few of Johnson's accomplishments, and help explain why U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn, probably the state's leading black politician, describes Johnson by saying that "among prominent white businessmen, he has to be considered the biggest supporter of African-Americans in the history of the state of South Carolina."

What about his record on women's issues? Again, it is surprisingly good. For example, Johnson made an unwavering and successful commitment to making the University of South Carolina the first major university to name its business school after a woman (it was named for Darla Moore, who had made a fortune on Wall Street).

The New South/Old South Issue: Mischaracterizing Johnson

Against this record of achievement, Shipnuck portrays Johnson as a man who is also incredibly stubborn, as well as committed to an old-South vision of privacy - in which people have the right to associate wherever and with whomever they desire. Despite his strong record on civil rights, Johnson still belongs to two leading clubs in Columbia that are all white.

Shipnuck, however, makes a rare mistake in comparing Johnson to Tom Wolfe's character Charlie Croker, who was lampooned in Wolfe's send-up of Atlanta society, A Man in Full. In fact, Croker, as described by Wolfe, was all about show, ostentation and is very much emblematic of "the new south." Johnson, on the other hand, is much more of an "old south" personality: he is willing to be judged and answer questions about his public actions, but holds his private life sacred.

The Private/Public Issue: Letting the PGA Tour Off the Hook Too Easily

The problem, of course, is that Augusta National isn't really that private a place. In fact, by hosting the only golf "Major" that is held at the same course every year (the other three rotate between courses), Johnson has placed his club - and himself as chairman - squarely in the public eye.

No one questions Augusta National's constitutional right to select its own members. But surely the equation changes when the club chooses to hold what is arguably the most important tournament in the world.

For that reason, one of the most ridiculous characters in this drama, and one that Shipnuck lets off far too lightly, is the PGA tour itself -- which has a policy of not holding tournaments at clubs that discriminate, but seems to honor it in the breach.

Because the Masters is held by Augusta National, and not technically sponsored by the tour (which splits hairs by saying that it only "recognizes" the Masters as a tournament), the PGA has claimed that it is unable to influence the club's membership policy. But this technicality is absurd, something that Shipnuck mentions in passing, but should have covered in far greater depth.

Insight Into a Strange, Conflicted Klansman

All in all, however, the reader will come away feeling that she has learned a great deal about the actors in this drama. Among the most intriguing is J.J. Harper, the Klansman. Although he occasionally spouts Klan-like rhetoric, Shipnuck seems to think it's primarily for shock value.

After railing about the need for more Christianity, Harper cheerfully invites Shipnuck, who is Jewish, into his home for dinner and treats him with the utmost respect. Harper's favorite golfer? None other than Tiger Woods.

Harper also criticizes the Klan, saying that "All the Klansmen I've met say they're Christians, but from what I've seen they ain't … Every time they yelled 'White Power' I felt it was beneath me."

Yet, when asked by a reporter if he was going to "suit up" in the Klan robes for the protest, Harper told Shipnuck, "Don't say a word," because Shipnuck knew that Harper didn't actually own Klan robes and generally felt disdain for that sort of pageantry.

Strong Analysis of Media Coverage

The book's other strong suit is its portrayal of the press coverage of this issue, particularly the manner in which the New York Times jumped in with both feet. Then Editor-in- Chief Howell Raines, who grew up in Alabama, viewed this as a chance to "flood the zone."

This decision led to widespread criticism in the "blogosphere," where the Times is often criticized. In one of the few interviews that Raines has given since he left the Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair debacle, he let Shipnuck in on the decision making behind much of this controversial reporting. Perhaps because Shipnuck is himself a journalist, the section on the press is among the most illuminating.

Did This Controversy Merit an Entire Book?

Although the book is well-written, painstakingly researched, and has a number of excellent one-liners ("Hootie was the most wonderfully evocative name this side of Buttafuoco"), at the end the reader can't help wonder if there was really enough of a controversy to warrant this much coverage, either in the media at the time or in this book today.

On the one hand, it's hard to understand why the club cares so deeply about remaining all male. But, on the other, it seems that Burk, as the leader of an important women's rights organization, must have better things to do with her time than fight for the right of the likes of Sandra Day O'Connor or Darla Moore to be admitted to a golf club.

That said, die-hard golf fans will find this an interesting behind the scenes look at Augusta National and the Masters, and students of civil rights will be intrigued by the modern-day aspects of a struggle to integrate one of the most old-school organizations in America.

Unfortunately, in the end, that struggle seems more like a thumb-wrestling match than the advertised "Battle for Augusta National."

Sam Williamson is an attorney practicing in New York. He frequently reviews legal thrillers and other works for this site. His earlier reviews may be found in the Book Review Archive. Full disclosure: Some members of Williamson's extended family belong to one of the exclusive Columbia, S.C. clubs to which Johnson belongs; however, to his knowledge, none of them knows Johnson personally. Also, Williamson attended the Masters this past year.

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