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Getting the priorities right
Although shorter of hair and very much more selective of what I imbibe, I still echo sentiments of the 60s. One bit of idle observation from that fuzzy period of time suggests that what happens in the US today happens here in Europe tomorrow. This has certainly held true to date in every aspect of our lives and in no area more obviously than in our social attitudes. Political correctness is the prime example and although few would have disagreed with the seeds of its concept, more than a few must be alarmed at the scale that it has assumed as well as its variegation.

In the current hiatus of American politics, political correctness has become the bread and butter of even the most considered of American broadsheet newspapers. So, the issue of political correctness raised over the Masters tournament was manna from heaven for the New York and Washington 'heavies' faced with the dilemma of the conflict in Iraq.

For weeks in the run up to this years Masters the 'thinking' American press focused on the exclusive all-male membership of the Augusta National Golf Club, even going so far as to name and shame members and listing the companies and corporations with which they find employment. This they have done in a bid to have them change the constitution of the club to include women members. Whether or not one agrees with this private club's constitution it is surely galling to find peoples right to privacy being so casually abused. The liberal American press has either a very short memory or is currently constrained within an intellectual straightjacket for only a few years ago it was in outrage about the 'outing ' of homosexuals by the same means.

Proper protest and constructive debate seems also to have gone by the board. My expectations of Ms Martha Burk's protest outside the Augusta National's gates were built upon the acres of column inches that the American press had awarded the event. What actually transpired was a sad little affair that was put into perspective by the public interest it generated, defying all of the hype and ballyhoo of the TV and press.

The march on Montgomery this was not. This was as far removed from the desperate anti-Vietnam demos of yesteryear as is a manicure to major surgery and the public's interest, or lack of it, put it into proper perspective.

Burk and her associates in the National Council of Women's' Organizations had their demonstration confined to a grassy hollow nearly half a mile from the Augusta National gates. Had the numbers of protesters anticipated not been so greatly exaggerated it is doubtful if the local judge who prevented them access to the club's entrance proper would have allotted such an expansive area.

But as well as being poorly attended as protests go it was also badly organised. Indeed, both the setting and the scale served the anti-protesters best with their 'honk-for-Hootie' signs, for the speakers were drowned out by a continuous cacophony of honking horns and generally unimaginative jeering from the stream of passing cars.

The standard of platform oratory was poor and the heckling was weak. Ms Burk delivered her message just before noon on Saturday to the 40 or so backers present. It was largely composed of slogans already worn thin from the press exposure of previous weeks. She did her best to blend them into a theme of 'what are the members of Augusta National afraid of?' type question. This she turned into the rhetoric by concluding, 'they will open those doors up there to women; they know it and we all know it because we are right and we will prevail'.

Martin Luther King she clearly was not but she did make the most of what she had available and when you consider that membership of Augusta National is surely not a life-or-death issue, she did not have a great deal available.

But it was the heckling that was really poor and of the worst and most sexist redneck variety. Of the 200 or so present most had simply come to gawk at the rather sad notices held up by the Burk supporters bearing the names of hitherto anonymous men, who happened to be members of the Augusta National Club, with the names of their corporate employers.

One was exhorted not to purchase the products of the companies that employed these horrible men who insist on exercising their democratic rights of freedom of association. When one young lady was asked if this naming and shaming of individuals was not perhaps a little underhand, her reply was very like that given by George Bush the previous evening on TV on an altogether different matter: 'We will use whatever means we have to win,' she said. It becomes clear that for some there is no conflict between the gender issue and the rights of the individual for freedom of association and this I find frightening.

It is frightening in the same way as the Elvis impersonator who threatened violence when it was suggested to him that he bore a closer resemblance to Roy Orbison. Or the one man Ku-Klux-Klan who kept insisting that Tiger Woods was his favourite golfer and that 'this was not a race issue.' When asked what the issue was he was not altogether clear.

But it is the self-assured, self-righteousness of the broadsheet American press that is most frightening. No ground is inviolate and no quarter is given. Even Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have been pilloried for not taking up the gender issue as full members of Augusta National.

In response to Arnie and Jack's plea for Hootie Johnson to rescind his decision for over-65 year-old past-champions to be excluded automatic entry to the Masters, the star sports reporter of the New York Times wrote: 'It would be touching to witness two of golf's legends put aside their past grudges for a joint cause if their Masters protest weren't so self-serving.'

This is surely a bit rough. Whatever happened to good old nostalgia? Surely one of the marvels of the Masters is the sight of great old past-champions rolling up to pap the ball down the first fairway. Words cannot relate what it meant to the people of St Andrews when Sam Snead, Roberto de Vicenzo and Peter Thomson turned out for the Millennial Open. Arnie and Jack should be applauded for taking the traditionalist stance for America has little enough of it in golf.

That they chose not to involve themselves as private members over a private issue in a private club, is surely a private matter for only themselves to address.

It is fascinating that the important social issue of access to golf in the USA should be ignored whilst access to what must be one of the most exclusive Clubs in the world is given front-page status. The fact that the game in America is socially divisive through the price of access to it is of no concern to the politically correct who wield the power of the pen. For the vast majority of Americans golf is beyond their expectations and membership of Augusta beyond their wildest dreams -- but that, apparently, is not an issue.

If the axiom that what happens today in America happens here tomorrow is true, I prey and hope that it does not include their social ills and intellectual social contortions. Golf has long been enjoyed by both genders of every class of society in Scotland and everyone, irrespective of income, has long enjoyed access to it. But things are already changing here; the game is becoming more expensive and the proliferation of private investments in the game is making it increasingly divisive. Let us all, including Ms Howell, look to America and learn.

©    21 - APRIL 2003

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