The last public words from Hootie Johnson came seven months ago
when he helped Tiger Woods slip into the green jacket after winning
the Masters for a second straight year.
The Augusta National chairman is silent no more.
Starting with a series of interviews, Johnson began a media
campaign that left public relations specialists debating whether it
would sway opinion on the all-male membership at the club.
"When you come out with a media blitz, it's perceived as
scrambling. It comes across much more as an act of desperation,''
said Jonathan Bernstein, whose Los Angeles-based company, Bernstein
Communications, specializes in crisis management.
"But it's also a case of 'better late than never.' He had a
message to get across.''
Augusta National, under attack from Martha Burk and the National
Council of Women's Organizations since July, hired a media
consultant six weeks ago.
Johnson's first interview on the membership issue was on
newscasts and Web sites Monday evening. That was followed by an
editorial from Johnson that appeared Tuesday in the Wall Street
On Wednesday, the club released results of a survey it
commissioned and said they indicated most people agree that Augusta
National can set its own membership policies as a private club.
The national poll, conducted by Washington-based The Polling
Company Inc. and WomenTrend, reported that 60 percent of 800 people
agreed that the club should retain its membership policy.
Seventy-four percent said Augusta National "has the right to have
members of one gender only.''
Why talk now?
"You have to say, 'Whom can this kind of information affect?'
It does not affect those people who already have made up their
mind,'' said Mary Ann Ferguson, a journalism and communications
professor at the University of Florida.
In an interview last week, Johnson said there had been
speculation about when Augusta National would have a female member,
and, "I thought we ought to get the record straight.''
He reiterated the club alone would decide when to add a female
member, and that there was no chance one would be invited to join
before the next Masters in April.
Johnson did not deviate much from his July 9 statement on the
history, tradition and constitutional rights of the club to
associate with whomever it pleases.
If that was the case, why say anything at all?
"Regardless of what you say, if you don't say what the other
side wants you to say, you're better off keeping your mouth shut,''
said Mike Herman, president of Epley & Associates public relations
firm in Charlotte, N.C.
"I think the silence carried a message,'' he said. "It seems
to me that the club has itself in a situation where whatever it
does, it looks defensive. And I'm not sure either the club
membership or the club leadership sees that as a negative.''
Johnson made sure reporters saw stacks of letters on his desk
that he said supported Augusta National, and a telephone survey of
624 newspaper readers in Pennsylvania, 90 percent of whom said he
He leaned heavily on Wednesday's poll to illustrate support.
The 48-question survey asked about the First Amendment and which
women's issues take high priority, eventually honing in on Augusta
National's rights as a private club.
One question asked respondents if they agree with this
"The Augusta National Golf Club was correct in its decision not
to give into Martha Burk's demand. They should review and change
their policies on their own time, and in their own way.''
Seventy-two percent agreed.
Another question asked if respondents agree with this statement:
"Private organizations that are not funded by the government
should be allowed to decide who becomes a member and who does not
become a member on their own, without being forced to take input
from other outside people or organizations."
Seventy-six percent agreed.
Harry O'Neill, chairman of the polling review board of the
National Council of Public Polls, said the survey included
"terribly loaded questions'' with "emotionally loaded words.''
"They would serve themselves much better if they had done a
more succinct survey without any questions that were obviously
biased or loaded in their wording,'' O'Neill said. "They didn't do
themselves any favors.''
Burk dismissed the poll as a "sort of an amateurish attempt to
bolster their position against women.''
The president of WomenTrend defended the validity of the poll
and said some of the questions invited dissension.
"I'm not going to risk my reputation because a certain client
wants a certain result,'' Kellyanne Conway said.
While Burk said she has made progress, no one has resigned his
membership at Augusta.
Johnson already dismissed the Masters' TV sponsors, CBS Sports
has said it will televise the tournament, and commissioner Tim
Finchem said the PGA Tour would continue to recognize the major
championship as an official event.
Still, some people believe Augusta National had no choice but to
make its case.
"The NCWO has been aggressively pressing this thing,'' said
Fraser Seitel, whose book, "The Practice of Public Relations,'' is
used in 200 colleges and universities. "Augusta was clearly
losing, and they were going to be losing further if they had not
stepped up and stated their position. They would have lost by
Rene Henry wasn't so sure.
Henry is the author of the book "You'd Better Have a Hose If
You Want to Put Out the Fire: The Complete Guide to Crisis and Risk
"I don't ever recommend fighting back unless you're right,''
Which side is right over the all-male membership will be debated
until the Masters, and possibly beyond.