Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations and William "Hootie" Johnson are in the middle of their take no prisoners battle. At stake is whether women should be admitted to the all-male Augusta club that hosts golf's most prestigious tournament, the Masters.
According to Burk, denying women is discriminatory, sexist and stupid. Johnson counters that women will become members over his cold dead body.
Not since Billy Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in their 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match has the nation been so fixated on a man-woman controversy.
From the outset, Johnson has mismanaged Burk's request that Augusta consider opening its doors to women members. The current policy allows women to play but not to join.
Johnson could have stonewalled Burke by sending a letter saying that he would put the matter under advisement.
Instead, Johnson threw a tantrum, insisted that "this woman" would not bully him and drew a line in the sand.
Johnson's problem is that prominent members— Citigroup's Sandy Weill, American Express' Kenneth Chenault and multimillionaire Tiger Woods—leaked word that they favor admitting women. And tens of millions of dollars in television revenues, advertising and merchandising are at stake.
Johnson claims, accurately, that Augusta as a private club is free to admit whomever it pleases.
And Johnson adds that members "do not feel that they should be dictated to or targeted. They feel it is politically motivated, a media process and a witch hunt."
But the money is what makes Augusta's membership policies more interesting than the standards at other all male golf clubs like Long Island's Garden City Golf Club or Highland Park's Bob O' Link. Garden City hasn't had a woman member in its 105-year existence. Bob O' Link had women members but voted to eject them.
If it makes Burk feel any better Johnson doesn't want golf legends like Doug Ford, Gay Brewer or Billy Casper hanging around the club either.
Johnson wrote them a pointed letter urging them not to exercise their privilege as former Masters champions to play in last spring's tournament. Their high scores slowed things down too much, according to Johnson.
This battle is one Johnson cannot win. Too many women bank at Citibank and too many have American Express cards. Burk is too entrenched to give an inch. The longer Johnson stubbornly refuses to budge, the more certain demonstrations become.
For a few more weeks—at the most—Johnson can still have his cake and eat it too. Johnson could announce that after consultation with the membership a decision has been made to admit a woman as a full member prior to the Masters in 2004.
A 2004 date is a compromise between Burk's demand for immediate membership and Johnson's position that he is "not convinced change will come anytime soon."
Passions always run high in single gender spats. I have been involved in three and was only disappointed once at the outcome.
I attended The Lawrenceville School, since 1810 an all-boys prep school. Whether to admit girls was hotly argued every year. When the decision was finally made to admit girls in 1987, one of the Trustees resigned in a snit.
But during the intervening 15 years, the school has thrived as never before.
In the late 1970s, the New York Athletic Club changed its policy regarding women members. The club had been a gathering spot for men to talk about sports, play poker and shot pool. But women, feeling shut out, threatened to sue. The argument that sometimes the boys want to be among themselves was not persuasive. And, in truth, women perked up the stodgy, stuffy place.
But I still rue the day that the U.S. Supreme Court forced McSorley's Old Ale House to let women hoist pints with men.
Since 1854, McSorley's was a "No Women Allowed" place for hard-drinking, tall-tale telling men to quaff "one and ones." At McSorley's patrons were served two ales at once. That insured that you wouldn't run dry and lessened the workload on the barkeeper.
No woman in her right mind would want to go to McSorley's. Neighborhood muggings in the Bowery were common. The bloke on the stool next to you may not have bathed since a week ago Saturday. And the house cats were climbing over the taps and the glasses.
Guys loved the place. But, back then, women's liberation was cresting. When constitutional lawyers Faith Seidenberg and Karen De Crow won their Supreme Court appeal to gain admittance for women, McSorley's was forever changed.
The pub went down swinging though. On the fateful night that Lucy Kosimar, a National Organization of Women Vice President appeared at the door, manager Dennis Lynch rejected her driver's license as proof of age and demanded to see her birth certificate.
As Kosimar muscled her way in, the regulars booed and hissed.
But it was too late.
Today, depressingly, McSorley's is a tourist joint. But during my drinking life, McSorley's was honestly just the best saloon on God's earth.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.