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Story last updated at 11:32 a.m. Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Protesters overshadowed by media, police
BY JAMES SCOTT
Of The Post and Courier staff

AUGUSTA--It was a tough battle Saturday -- not between the golfers -- but between reporters and police officers over who had a larger presence at the protest just down the road from Augusta National Golf Club.

After 10 months of threats, boycotts and countless media reports against the club's men-only policy, Martha Burk arrived with little more than two-dozen supporters and spent barely an hour before taking off in a Chevy Trail Blazer.

Her numbers were drastically overshadowed by the 123 police officers, complete with more than 75 cruisers parked on site, not to mention a swarm of about 100 reporters from around the globe, toting cameras, notepads and microphones and giving the protest a carnival-like atmosphere.

The chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, standing before a 10-foot-tall inflated pig that read "Augusta National: Corporate Pig Club," used her brief time to push the issue of women's equality, despite boos from some and the occasional heckler.

"The United States has 51 states. We have the lower 48, Hawaii, Alaska and the police state of Augusta," said Burk, who unsuccessfully fought the city to protest directly outside the club. "We are a long way from the front gates were those boys are in there sewing."

Despite Burk's statement that low attendance numbers were intentional because of the war in Iraq, the half dozen groups protesting against her organization latched on to it as evidence of her lack of support.

"There has never been much support for her by women on this issue," said Tampa, Fla.-resident Todd Manzi, who started www.theburkstopshere.com last fall. "It's media driven. She has used the world-famous golf tournament as a backdrop for this circus."

While Saturday's brief protest may have seemed like a circus, some folks around this north Georgia town weren't celebrating, thanks to the backlash of Burk's crusade against Augusta National.

Augusta Chairman Hootie Johnson, a former Columbia banker, pulled the plug on the tournaments' three major sponsors -- Coca Cola, IBM and Citigroup -- to shield them from negative publicity, a move expected to cost the club about $7 million.

With the loss of those sponsors went many of the room nights that locals, such as Redwood Drive resident Judy Collins, depend on each year.

Collins, whose three-bedroom, three-bath home is a half-mile from the front gate, said this is the first time in years her home has not rented.

"It's the trickle down effect," said Collins, who counts on the $3,000 per week she gets in rent during the Masters. "A lot of people in Augusta, like caterers and restaurants, depend on this. It's our 15 minutes of fame, and it's taking its toll."

Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who spent Saturday at the golf tournament with some corporate visitors, compared the Masters to having a 13th month each year for the local economy.

He said people would be hard pressed to find any locals supporting Burk.

"I don't think there is any doubt when it comes to the Masters that this is a company town," said Young.

"People are extremely supportive of the course. It pays taxes, provides jobs and contributes to charities, not to mention puts on a world class event each year."

The mayor's comments seemed to echo this week through the town of about 200,000 nestled on the banks of the Savannah River. The word on the street in the cafes, coffee shops and restaurants is that the protesters should go.

"It's Martha Jerk," said Pat McCraith, who owns Rolln' Frank, a hotdog stand he operates off the back of a golf cart in downtown. "Locally, people are pissed. She's acting like an immature child."

The constant media exposure -- much of it negative, and portraying Augusta as full of ignorant, country bumpkins -- prompted 29-year-old Allison Green to form Women Against Martha Burk. Green, who held her own protest last week, gathered more than 1,600 signatures of local women who disagree with Burk.

"I was born and raised in Augusta. I love this town," said Green, who is general manager of the Boll Weevil Cafe.

"She is not attacking Augusta National. She is attacking something that is an icon to us and dragging our city through the mud in the process."

Some of that local frustration was evident Saturday morning during the hour-long protest, when people in passing cars shouted derogatory comments like "Burk go home" and honked their car horns in support of Johnson and Augusta National's refusal to change its policy.

Throughout the morning, law enforcement officers stood on the perimeter of the five-acre field. At no point did the protest turn violent, though officers escorted one man away after he held up a sign directly in front of Burk that read "Make me dinner" before shouting "Oprah rules."

"She came into the lions den, she deserves to get eaten," said Ron Pontiff, a New Bern, N.C. resident who started Golfers for a Real Cause.

"She has only herself to thank for all that."

Burk was joined by New York state Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who beneath a sign reading "Discrimination is not an American Value" threatened to go after Augusta National's members who live in her district, which includes Manhattan.

"This is not an issue about allowing women into private clubs. It's about leveling the playing field," Maloney said. "What's at stake is keeping women out of the halls of power. It's stigmatizing."

Burk and others in her organization vowed to keep fighting, even after the Masters wraps up today. Their plan: target big companies whose executives belong to exclusive clubs like Augusta National. Some of those companies' logos, such as General Electric, IBM and Citigroup, were represented Saturday on posters that read "Women Pay while CEOs Play."

"We're not summertime soldiers," argued Alice Cohan of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "We've been fighting for equal rights for women for a long time. We're not going away."

While Burk and her supporters may push on with their battle to let women on the greens of Augusta National, many here say they should fight it from somewhere else. Protesting the Masters, many say, is akin to blasphemy.

"The people of Augusta love the Masters," said Green. "When the golf traffic signs go up, the air of anticipation is nothing any other city experiences. The people of Augusta love the Masters. Financially and emotionally, it is part of our lives."

James Scott can be reached at 745-5855 or jscott@postandcourier.com.








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