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Masters debate has Augusta businesses worried
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Terry Wick couldn't ask for a better place to cater to VIP golf fans than The Clubhouse, a banquet hall he manages across the street from the main entrance to Augusta National Golf Club.
For the Masters tournament in April, big companies throw private parties and pay in the five figures for Wick's red-carpet treatment. They get duck with orange brandy sauce on the menu, leather couches facing three TVs in one dining room, and a putting green in the parking lot.
But with the Masters nearly five months away, Wick's already worried. He received e-mail from a major telecommunications company canceling its plans. The message said Augusta National, under fire for its all-male membership, is too controversial for wining and dining clients.
"It's a pretty big hit. That's about $60,000 we'll lose. They were probably our second-biggest client," Wick said. "There could easily be repercussions across the board for everybody."
As a sort of Mardi Gras for the country-club crowd, Masters week in Augusta is known for corporate largesse. Companies rent clusters of private homes for executives and guests, throw elaborate catered parties and plaster their logos on rented limousines.
But some Augustans, such as Wick, say the battle between Augusta National and the National Council of Women's Organizations is taking a bite out of the lucrative business they count on from Magnolia Lane.
Hootie Johnson, chairman of the private golf club, has refused demands from the women's council to admit a female member by the 2003 Masters. With the Rev. Jesse Jackson threatening protests and Tiger Woods on the defensive, some companies are deciding to duck the controversy by staying away.
Diane Starr, president of Augusta rental agency Corporate Quarters, said "two or three" corporate clients have canceled, citing budget cuts. She hopes bookings will bounce back in January, as they did last year to avert a Masters meltdown after Sept. 11.
"I thought that could be the worst thing to ever happen," said Starr, who declined to identify clients. "Then you realize the women's organizations could do just as much damage."
Augusta's official business boosters scoff at the notion of an economic Masters disaster. Since the tournament began in 1934, Masters tickets have become among the most coveted in sports. For every person declining an invitation, scores more wait to snatch it up.
"If a corporation decided not to come to Augusta for the tournament, the tickets will not go unused," said Barry White, director of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau. "There's enough demand. People will come. People will be spending money in Augusta."
But there's a big difference between the golf enthusiasts who pack Augusta's hotels and restaurants simply to attend the tournament, and corporate ticket holders who put on major productions.
They bring in the big bucks. An estimated 2,000 homeowners rent their houses, counting on hefty fees for mortgage payments or home improvements. College students and teachers, whose spring break coincides with the Masters, take temporary jobs as waiters and maids for extra cash.
"Don't get me wrong, you don't laugh at any of the money that comes in," said Aimee Murphy, an image consultant who worked as a house maid during the past four Masters. "But the big money comes from those who are renting the houses, doing the catering and having the functions."
Wick, who normally hires 100 extra hands, said he's received 40 applications from displaced tournament temps whose regular gigs have been canceled.
One of them was Murphy, who says the homeowners who previously hired her called last week to say their renters won't be returning.
Which companies aren't coming? It's hard to say. Augusta businesses zealously guard the identity of their Masters clients. And no companies have publicly stated they're sitting out the tournament.
But Augusta National has dropped its three sponsors -- Coca-Cola, Citigroup and IBM -- to shield their image. American Express chairman Kenneth Chenault, an Augusta National member, has said he thinks there should be female members.
And there are signs some companies will still attend but are cutting back spending because of the shaky economy. CBS passed on renting the house where Murphy worked as maid, though the network still plans to televise the Masters. Wick said a large tobacco company has scaled back its rentals to three houses rather than seven.
"There's a lot of time between now and the Masters for people to change their minds," said Ed Presnell, president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. "When they start mailing out tickets, the mindset starts changing again."
Presnell said hotel bookings and home rentals are on track with last year, when demand was weakened because of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Some Augustans, such as Starr, say companies are more worried about the budget pressures than the women's issue. Others acknowledge they are loath to give any credit to Martha Burk, head of the NCWO.
Vera Stewart, owner of Very Vera catering, normally has her Masters menus planned by now. But she says several corporate customers have put off signing contracts until January.
"I'm not willing to say that has anything to do with Martha Burk," Stewart said. "She's not going to hurt my business."
Burk said she understands the frustration in Augusta. But she says Augusta National deserves the blame, not herself.
"Even if I decided tomorrow to give up this fight, the tournament is so tainted. Sponsors would still not come back until the policy is changed," Burk said.
If Augusta National doesn't back down, Burk said, public protests will be certain. She said groups have submitted ideas from wearing Afghan-style burqas colored green to mock Masters champions' fabled green jackets, to forming "a good-ol' boy doo-wop band call Hootie and the Blowhards."
Col. Gary Powell of the Richmond County sheriff's department said nobody has applied yet for a public demonstration permit, which Augusta requires, but peaceful protests will be allowed.
"I think their biggest problem will be finding a place to stay while they're here," Powell said.