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Burk has point about Augusta, but now's not time to make it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MARTHA BURK could declare early victory in her battle to open the dogwood-lined gates of Augusta National to women. Hasn't she already won?

With the Ku Klux Klan's American White Knights applying to march next month on Magnolia Lane to defend the rights of the all-male golf club, isn't that enough absurd proof that the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations has made her point?

If the embarrassment of having the support of the KKK doesn't drive Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson to reconsider his unfathomably hysterical reaction and stance, what will?

Johnson is the Ricky Watters of the golf set. Remember when the Eagles running back took flak for not running routes over the middle to avoid getting pummeled? Asked why he refused, Watters asked: "For who? For what?"

Johnson should stitch that motto onto the lapel of his green sport coat. For who, for what should Augusta stand down on its Jurassic policy? Not Martha Burk. Not at the point of a bayonet.

Just when you were sure this story could not get more bizarre, here we are. Men in white hoods are prepared to join men in green jackets. That's why Burk should raise the white flag. Now.

Burk should back out of this standoff - not because her cause isn't a good one, but because the point has already been well made, and, frankly, there are more important issues confronting America this spring: like imminent war.

Madness in Augusta over protest-permit applications reached a feverish pitch last week. Along with Burk, who wants 250 spots for her protest outside the main gates of the club, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition is threatening to come on down.

It brings me pleasure to report that I will have a kindred spirit in Augusta next month. Last week, a county sheriff spokesman reported that an Atlanta member of the New Black Panther Party has requested permission to demonstrate.

"He wants to protest against the triviality of this whole protest" surrounding Augusta, said Sheriff Col. Gary Powell, adding: "He says there are lots more important issues going on in the world right now, such as a war with Iraq."

Amen.

Anyone who listened to President Bush's news conference Thursday night would be shortsighted not to re-evaluate what life is going to be like within a few short days, weeks, months.

Maybe you could make an argument that this is a pertinent time to be able to express free speech and the right to assemble. Lord knows the president had to acknowledge that the rights of citizens to express dissenting opinions about a war is part of the freedom any military action is aimed at protecting.

Sports and protest are not mutually exclusive. With sports such a part of our society's fabric, it's inevitable for the singing of the national anthem to give rise to forms of protest. That took place last month in the ranks of women's college basketball. A player on the Division III team at Manhattanville, and later, a Division I player at Virginia chose to turn away from the flag during the pre-game ceremony, igniting a debate about appropriate forms of protest and what makes a good teammate.

While it's tempting to call Burk's proposed march on Augusta on April 12 an act of patriotism in that it is permissible and sanctified within the rules of our country's Constitution, in these times, it seems something else.

The word "trivial" is a good one. Or, at least, protesting a golf club's membership policy seems a far less important issue than others we currently face. In fact, the real issue is whether, during a time of war, does inordinate attention to a less threatening issue than war or terrorism become inappropriate or, worse, insulting?

You can appreciate the mother or father or spouse of any member of the military feeling outrage at the sight of picketing outside of Augusta.

They're fighting for the right of women to gain entry into Augusta when a quarter of a million armed forces are on call to engage in war? To whom does this issue matter? It is largely symbolic, anyway.

Not that the symbolism of Burk's planned protest march on Augusta is lost on anyone with an even vaguely feminist bent. The all-male, private golf club that is home to one of the world's most hallowed golf tournaments is indeed a crucible of male, corporate power.

That women can't be members does go a long way toward reinforcing the Old World order of withholding from women access to bastions of power.

Furthermore, it's not that Augusta is a male-only club that's the problem. It's that the PGA, CBS and other corporate entities that sanction, televise and sponsor this event implicitly condone and promote such an exclusionary atmosphere.

OK, we all know that now.

We also know this is just a golf tournament. Shame has already been brought to its doorstep, over which the best players in the world are going to walk, pick up their drivers and play. Tiger Woods is going for a record. He is not going to boycott or take any socially conscious action to apply pressure to the men in green, just as the men in green have yet to say what ultimately they should and will say:

OK, fine, we're ready to let a woman in.

This fight started almost 10 months ago when Burk asked Augusta National to admit female members for the first time in its 69-year history and Johnson not only declined, but he also fanned the flames, saying Augusta would not be forced to have a female member "at the point of a bayonet."

Well, guess what? There are no bayonets. Just the KKK asking local government officials where they can set up their little Augusta support group.

Meanwhile, talk about the use of more deadly weapons - and far graver issues - confronts us.

Please, someone call it quits.

Let the more reasonable gender step down.

Or, better yet, both of them.

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