Off The Record

For the past few months, while the top corners of The New York Times ‘ front page have been preoccupied with Iraqi invasion plans and Al Qaeda sleeper cells, below the paper’s fold-and in other prominent spots inside- The Times has launched its own tactical assault against the Augusta National Golf Club, host to the Masters Tournament.

Usually forgotten for 51 weeks out of the year, the Georgia club’s refusal to admit women as members has made it a bull’s-eye for equal-opportunity proponents and a symbol of the kind of mint-julep, stick-in-the mud thinking that critics say belongs in Binx Bolling’s South, not Andrew Young’s.

Lately, Augusta National-whereTiger Woods became the first African-American champion only seven years after the club itself admitted its first black member-has had all sorts of bad press. USA Today , The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have all devoted considerable column inches to the matter.

But it’s been The New York Times that has prodded and pulled the story, refusing to let it slip from the table of conversation. From its front-page features examining Mr. Woods’ place in speaking out about the matter to its strongly worded editorials, the paper has made women and Augusta the biggest sports-and-society story of the year.

What’s more, the energy of The Times ‘ effort on the Masters story has illuminated certain new priorities-and a swift aggressiveness-that have taken hold at the paper under executive editor Howell Raines, who’s now in his second year.

“I think we saw very early what made it an important story,” said Times sports reporter Bill Pennington, who first broke news of dissent among Augusta’s membership along with columnist Dave Anderson. “Through quite a few resources, we’ve been able to go at it. And our department, in particular, has the resources to really go at it from several angles.

“We’ve advanced the story each time we touched it,” Mr. Pennington said.

While the club’s ban on female members was occasionally an issue in the past, the current controversy began in earnest in July when Augusta chairman William (Hootie) Johnson responded to a June letter from Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, petitioning him to admit a woman. While the club permits women to play a round of 18, it has specifically barred women from its most exclusive, 200-plus membership ranks.

Mr. Johnson-a former civil-rights advocate who has helped increase the number of African-American men at the club-responded to Dr. Burk’s letter with a stubborn and stinging public statement.

Claiming that Dr. Burk had threatened the club, Mr. Johnson lashed out: “We will not be bullied, threatened or intimidated. Obviously, Dr. Burk and her colleagues view themselves as agents of change, and feel any organization that has stood the test of time and has strong roots of tradition and does not fit their profile, needs to be changed. We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case.”

Mr. Johnson’s reaction was what triggered the flood tide, said Mr. Anderson, who has covered the Masters since 1970.

“It wasn’t a story until he made it a story,” Mr. Anderson said. “Until he reacted to the letter. If he had just acted calmly or called her up, it would have been different. Instead, he put out an 18-paragraph release attacking her. To me, he keeps compounding his mistakes by continually bringing it up.”

Indeed, since then, Mr. Johnson has made every effort to cut Dr. Burk off at the pass. When she said that the NWOC would pressure the Masters’ sponsors-Coca-Cola,I.B.M.andCitigroup-Mr. Johnson canceled those sponsorship agreements and forfeited $5 million in fees. When Dr. Burk approached CBS, which has broadcast the tournament since 1956, and asked about its intentions, the network stood by Mr. Johnson, announcing that it would do so again-without commercial interruption.

A spokesperson for Augusta National declined Off the Record’s request for comment. As for The Times , it has latched onto the issue tighter than, well, any Dan Rather euphemism involving a bulldog.

According to one Times source, in the days following Mr. Johnson’s letter, writers and editors from the paper held a conference call to strategize what the coverage would be. The result has been a series of stories looking at the culture, the backroom dealing and the pressure within Augusta National.

The Times ‘ Augusta coverage symbolizes the faster, higher-octane metabolism of the outfit under Mr. Raines. Like the paper’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Enron meltdown-which Mr. Raines reportedly deemed the business staff’s 9/11- The Times has claimed ownership of every nugget of the issue. And it has hardly been contained to the sports pages. The Times ‘ most recent take on the Augusta saga was a front-page piece on Nov. 17 by Atlanta-based national correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman, headlined “Augusta Fears That Its Golf Party May Be Spoiled.”

Still, it’s been The Times ‘ sports staff that’s picked up the lion’s share of the story. And in the sports department, there’s agreement that Augusta is important to the paper’s top bosses. “Howell and [managing editor] Gerald [Boyd] are running our department right now, it’s pretty clear,” said a Times source.

Of course, the story is a natural for The Times , the source acknowledged. “You have an old white guy at a country club who doesn’t want women to come in. Every women’s group in the country will eat it up, and we’re a liberal paper, so the feeling is: ‘Let’s jump on it.'”

Sportswriter Jere Longman, who co-wrote the Sunday, Oct. 20, front-page feature on Mr. Woods, said he’d never spoken to Mr. Raines on this or any issue, but acknowledged that the Augusta story “has been important to Howell from the beginning.

“It’s been Howell’s interest in it that’s driven the story,” Mr. Longman continued. “I think it is an important story, but where his interest comes from, I’m not exactly sure. I would guess that, equating the civil-rights movement and the women’s movement, he feels the same kind of urgency.”

Susan E. Tifft, a professor of public policy at Duke University, as well as a former Times reporter and the co-author of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times , said the story was a natural fit for the interests of Mr. Raines and his paper.

“It’s no secret that Howell grew up in the civil-rights era, and for him this story would be very compelling,” Ms. Tifft said. “But it’s a legitimate, national story. There are lots of things about it: You have issues of equal access, you have women threatening to dress up in burqas. You have Tiger Woods. For God’s sake, you have some man named Hootie. If I was the editor of The Times , this story would make perfect sense to pursue.”

But Ms. Tifft added that Times -watchers shouldn’t discount the interest of the paper’s chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

“For many years, Arthur’s been interested in issues of women’s rights, and gender, and sexual orientation,” Ms. Tifft said. “This fits in with that. It’s no accident that Arthur chose Howell, because in terms of these issues, they see eye-to-eye.”

Sources at The Times said the Augusta coverage also reflects Mr. Raines’ determination to see the sports section become national in its scope, and a more important cog in the broader interests of The Times . In some ways, sources said, it reflects a shift away from the section that outgoing sports editor Neil Amdur built in the 1990’s under then–executive editor Joe Lelyveld. Then fearing the emergence of the now-extinct New York Newsday -a colorful, highly literate tabloid-Mr. Amdur followed Mr. Lelyveld’s decree to pump up local sports coverage, like the Yankees, the Mets and the Knicks.

Under Mr. Raines, that local focus has been downplayed in favor of a new directive to boost more nationally recognizable sports storylines, like college football and Augusta. The paper designated four former beat reporters-Messrs. Pennington and Longman (who previously covered the Olympics), Mike Wise (who continues to write his weekly column on the N.B.A.) and Mike Freeman (who splits time as a columnist)-to enterprise-reporting roles, and has prominently run national sports stories off the front page. None of them has been more prominent than Augusta.

Mr. Amdur did not return a phone call seeking comment, and a Times spokesperson said that Mr. Raines was unavailable for comment. However, one Times source characterized the Augusta issue this way: “It definitely plays into the idea of us being a national paper. It’s the thinking that ‘Let’s be out front on this. Let’s take the lead on this, before-God forbid- USA Today does.'”

Mr. Anderson felt that the kind of extensive coverage being devoted to Augusta wasn’t especially new for The Times . He pointed to the paper’s attention to Shoal Creek, the Alabama-based golf club that admitted a black member in 1990.

“That’s the type of story The Times jumps on,” Mr. Anderson said.

Selana Roberts, who’s written two columns on the subject-including a Nov. 13 installment entitled “Augusta’s Chairman Lives in a Time Warp,” following Mr. Johnson’s public redeclaration of his no-women stance-agreed.

“We feel like it’s an important story”, Ms. Roberts said. “In cases where there’s been a social issue involved, we’ve been pretty thorough in our coverage of those issues.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 19, The Times made its biggest mark on August yet, as Tiger Woods responded to a Nov. 18 Times editorial calling on him not to play in the Masters in order to send a “powerful message to the club.” “I think there should be women members,” Mr. Woods said in an Associated Press report. “But it’s not up to me. I don’t have voting rights, I’m just an honorary member.”

Explaining why she’s chosen to devote so much attention to Augusta, Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins told Off the Record that golf as a sport “takes on a disproportionate amount of importance, because it’s places like Augusta where you have all these massive power people and heads of corporations. It’s the quality of membership that makes it something more than a place where people go and hit balls around. It’s very irritating, the anti-women thing.

Ms. Collins said the editorial page will continue to deal with Augusta for as long as the club makes news.

“This is a story that’s been running for a very long time,” Ms. Collins said. “It seems to have endless legs, and Hootie himself has said that the legs are going to be even longer than we expected, because they won’t do anything about it. It’s something that will continue to be important as long as Augusta continues to behave this way, and as long as the Masters continues to happen at Augusta.