Editorial: Masters move tarnishes sport

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William "Hootie" Johnson's baffling, unilateral decision to drop sponsors from the 2003 Masters tournament to shield his Augusta National Golf Club from pressure to admit women as members was a bad call-for the tournament, the club, the sponsors, his media partner and the sport.

Johnson said he canceled the sponsorships of IBM Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and Citigroup so that the National Council of Women's Organizations would not target the marketers. What he avoided saying was that he also made it impossible for the marketers to pressure him on the issue if they agreed with the women's coalition. If he really had the interests of the sponsors in mind, he would have let them make their own decisions on whether to participate and how to respond to consumer complaints or boycott threats. But he gave the companies no say. He just dumped them.

CBS, which has televised the high-rated tournament for 46 years, was a victim of the decision on two levels. First, it is likely to take an economic hit from airing the tournament without commercials since it was limited to selling ad time only to sponsors. Second, it has been left as the sole target for the coalition, pressure that could be difficult for the network to withstand.

If Johnson's desire was to make the issue vanish, he again miscalculated badly. His decision was deemed newsworthy enough to merit above-the-fold, front-page play in The New York Times, putting a harsher spotlight on the club's seemingly exclusionary policies. That's bad for golf, which even in the Tiger Woods era is perceived by many as a sport dominated by white men.

Johnson-who once said he would admit women but "not at the point of a bayonet"-has come across in media coverage as stubborn and cantankerous, not the right image for the sport or its partners. The Masters tournament is still months away-time enough to reverse an obviously bad call and repair the damage already done.

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