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Heavy rains dominate as Masters looms

Augusta: Mother Nature accomplished on Monday what Martha Burk could only dream about.

Heavy morning rains and lightning turned Augusta National into a virtual ghost town, cancelling practice rounds for players and spectators alike. It marked the first time since the second round in 1983 that the gates of the club remained closed during the week of the tournament.

“We are disappointed that our patrons could not enjoy today’s practice round,” said Hootie Johnson, chairman of Augusta National and the Masters tournament. “However, our first concern must be safety.”

Johnson might have been relieved in one sense: The weather put a significant damper on any early, unofficial protests by supporters of Burk, whose National Council of Women’s Organisations wrote to Johnson last summer demanding that Augusta National admit a female member.

An organised protest by Burk is scheduled here during Saturday’s third round of the 67th Masters.

“For the golfers, the Masters is the same,” said Davis Love III. “It’s the frustration that we’re tired of talking about it (Burk’s protest). It has nothing to do with us or the golf tournament. We’re concerned more with security and safety and the war. It’s just a distraction we really don’t need.”

While Love and many of the world’s other top players have either spoken out against Burk’s cause or simply avoided it, three-time Masters champion Gary Player of South Africa has become an ardent supporter.

“As far as I’m concerned, women are an integral part of this golf course, this tournament,” Player said on Monday morning outside the clubhouse. “This is a private club, admittedly. But it’s also not a private club to the rest of the world because of 300 million (TV) viewers. At least 100 million are women.

“We mustn’t forget that women have helped to make this tournament the famous tournament that it is. So as far as I’m concerned, they should have women members.”

Player, who at 67 is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his last Masters win, said Burk’s intention to picket outside the property later in the week should not be stopped as long as it done peacefully.

“That’s the right that we have, that people can demonstrate,” said Player, who was a vocal supporter of the anti-apartheid movement in his native country. “Freedom is the most wonderful thing in the world, as long as we realise there’s responsibility that goes with freedom.”

Most of the current PGA Tour pros who have assembled here for the season’s first major championship seem to be tired talking about Burk and her planned protest, particularly in light of the war in Iraq.

“To a man, we’re here to play golf,” said veteran Scott Hoch. “If you’re going to worry about extracurricular stuff, that’s low on the burner compared to what’s going on in Iraq. Even the golf tournament is pretty minuscule compared to what’s going on over there.”

Said Charles Howell III: “There are so many bigger issues in the world today besides a woman becoming a member out here that it’s a bit of a joke. It’s a golf tournament.”

Having grown up in Augusta, learning to play the game at adjacent Augusta Country Club, Howell understands the economic impact the Masters has on his hometown. Based on the massive traffic jams around the club Monday, it doesn’t appear as if players or fans are heeding Burk’s call to boycott.

“Once you get inside the gates, it’s still Augusta National, and everything that’s great about this place is still here and always will be,” said Howell.

If anything, the Masters is usually viewed as a pleasant distraction for those at nearby Fort Gordon, an Army base that has deployed about 2,000 soldiers to Iraq.

In the late 1950s, soldiers from Fort Gordon were the first members of “Arnie’s Army”, following future legend Arnold Palmer.

“There is no difference this year,” said Marla Jones, the deputy public information director for the base. “Some units do go (to the Masters). We have a lottery system for badges (to get in). But we are busy.”

Though more rain is predicted for the next three days, players will try to get busy.

They will be thinking about how they can get their games sharp enough for the Masters and what they hope is a dethroning of Tiger Woods, who is seeking to become the first player to win three consecutive Masters.

“I don’t think about Tiger, but maybe I’m in a different generation,” said Howell, who at 23 is four years younger than Woods. “Tiger will do his thing. I’ve got plenty to worry about with my own game.''

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