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Johnson: Public wants us 'to talk about golf'

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Like an impenetrable goalie on top of his
game, Hootie Johnson kept stonewalling the shots. Tired of talking
about women, the chairman of Augusta National believes it's time
for his club and the Masters to move on.

"I really think the American public is ready for us to talk
about golf," Johnson said Wednesday, the eve of the opening round.

Last year at his "State of the Masters" news conference,
Johnson was patient with the persistent questioning about Martha
Burk and her efforts to call out Augusta National for not having
any female members.

At one point, he proclaimed, "If I die right now, our position
will not change."

This year, Johnson was nowhere near as colorful. He fielded five
questions on the issue, and dispatched each with a calculated
economy of words.

Did he feel like he'd won the public-relations battle with Burk,
the head of the National Council of Women's Organizations? "I
don't feel like we won anything. I feel it's over. Well, it'll
never be over, but I don't think we won anything."

Is Augusta National any closer to admitting a female member?
"We are a private club and I'm not going to talk about our club
matters."

What about Burk's new initiative, targeting corporations
associated with members of Augusta National? "I really think you
ought to talk to Ms. Burk about that."

What impact did Burk's campaign have on the tournament and the
club? "I leave that up to you to judge."

Johnson is apparently so solid with his stance that he said the
days of televising the tournament without commercials will be over
soon. When Burk put pressure on TV sponsors to pull their ads
before last year's tournament, Johnson responded by saying there
would be no commercials. This will be the second straight year
under that arrangement.

"We don't have any firm plans on sponsors in the future, but I
do expect we'll have them in time," he said.

The protests Burk planned on the Saturday of the tournament last
year largely fizzled, drawing more reporters than participants. She
blamed it on being relegated by local ordinances to an open field,
well away from the entrance to the course at the intersection of
Washington Road and Magnolia Lane.

Speaking from her office in Washington, she insisted her mission
is not over.

"I'm very happy with where we are," she said. "We're doing
now exactly what we said we were going to do last year after the
tournament. We're turning our attention to corporate involvement,
and doing it successfully. What's happening on the golf course is
irrelevant to the direction we're taking."

Indeed, on the golf course, this seems like a dead issue.

"If it was as big a deal as she made it out to be, we'd still
be talking about it," Charles Howell III said recently.

Earlier this week, Burk announced she was investigating eight
Wall Street companies whose top executives are members of Augusta
National. She also hired Washington lawyer Cyrus Mehri, whose firm
served as counsel in two of the largest race discrimination cases
in history.

"What I think is going on there is a whole lot of denial,"
Burk said. "Hootie and, I suppose, some of his members are trying
to pretend things are back to normal."

Johnson was more receptive to a question about whether
14-year-old Michelle Wie might someday be allowed to play in the
tournament.

"We'd be pleased to have Michelle play in the Masters
tournament if she qualifies," he said.

The most likely avenue would be for her to win the men's U.S.
Amateur Public Links, or to reach the finals of the men's U.S.
Amateur.

Johnson also announced changes to the playoff holes, but said
the Masters' sudden-death format would remain.

In the past, the playoff started on No. 10 and continued in
order through the back nine.

None of the six playoffs -- including the one last year between
Mike Weir and Len Mattiace -- went beyond the 11th hole. This year,
a playoff would begin on No. 18, proceed to No. 10 and rotate
between those two holes until a winner was decided.

Johnson said the change was a concession to time constraints:
Daylight is waning when the tournament draws to a close, and the
18th green draws more sunshine on a hill than the 10th does in a
valley.

The change also was made in deference to the many fans who get
to the course as early as 7 a.m. to position themselves to watch
the finish on No. 18, only to have it end elsewhere under the old
format.