TERENCE SMITH: It is this season's real life soap opera, a diversion for Americans grappling with problems at home and abroad.
A golf story recently captured the media's imagination and posed a thorny question: Should the venerable Augusta National Golf Club, host of the legendary Masters Tournament, change its long-standing membership policy and admit women? And related questions: Should golfers like Tiger Woods take a position on the issue? And if Augusta sticks to its policy, should CBS Sports broadcast the tournament this year as it has for more than 40 years? Amidst the headlines about possible war and terrorism, the dispute has received an extraordinary amount of press coverage, more than 40 stories in The New York Times alone.
The woman who started it all, Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, says she understands what the fuss is all about.
MARTHA BURK: Well, I think it has everything. It has money, it has power, it has sex, it has sports. Those are all things that guys care about primarily, and guys are still running the media.
TERENCE SMITH: She says the story began when she wrote a simple, private letter to William "Hootie" Johnson, Augusta National's chairman, asking the club to rescind its ban on women members.
MARTHA BURK: It was such a small part of our agenda. It was almost trivial in terms of our entire sphere of activity.
TERENCE SMITH: And now?
MARTHA BURK: Well, now, because of the media attention and the fact that it's a debate in the popular culture about the role of women in this society, it has become major.
TERENCE SMITH: Burk's letter elicited an angry, three-sentence private response from Johnson and a three-page public statement in which Johnson refused to discuss the issue with Burk, and said the club would not be pressured "at the point of a bayonet."
With that, the fat was in the fire. The argument splashed over the front pages, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson called for a change of venue.
JESSE JACKSON: The Masters perhaps should be shifted to a country club that is fair and open and American. The Masters is too much Americana for the gender bias to be so un-American.
TERENCE SMITH: Hootie Johnson declined our request for an interview, but has released a videotaped explanation of his club's policies.
WILLIAM JOHNSON: At its heart, August National is simply a club where friends gather to play golf and socialize. Our membership is single gender just as many other organizations and clubs all across America. These would include junior Leagues, sororities, fraternities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and countless others. And we all have a moral and legal right to organize our clubs the way we wish.
SPOKESMAN: ...One that went left...
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Verdi, senior writer for Golf Digest and Golf World, said Johnson has a reputation as a progressive business leader in the south. But he says it was Johnson's terse response to Burk that ignited the issue.
BOB VERDI: I think that -- and I don't want to speak for Mr. Johnson -- I think if he had what we call in golf "the mulligan," a do-over, he might change one or two things.
TERENCE SMITH: In a widely publicized editorial, the New York Times called upon golf's number one player, Tiger Woods, who has won the last two Masters tournaments, to boycott the event.
While saying that if it was up to him, women would be admitted to Augusta's Fortune 500 membership, Woods has steadfastly refused to give up his participation in the event.
TIGER WOODS: They're asking me to, you know, give up an opportunity to do something no one has ever done in the history of the Masters, is win three straight years.
TERENCE SMITH: Pros on the PGA Tour have been besieged by questions about the Masters controversy, and they often express their frustration at the media's obsession with it.
Regardless of their personal sentiments on the issue, most argue that they are golfers, not social activists. They say this is not their battle.
PHIL MICHELSON: I think it's wrong to bring the players into this. This is... this really has nothing to do with the players.
TERENCE SMITH: Phil Michelson, one of the PGA's top money winners, says the tour itself does not discriminate, and has welcomed women.
PHIL MICHELSON: We play the PGA Tour for a living, and we have done our best to not discriminate. Shoot, we've got women playing in our tournaments. We don't care who competes, men, women, what ethnicity. It makes no difference. If you can play golf and play it well, you are welcome on the PGA Tour.
TERENCE SMITH: Augusta National, they say, is not the PGA
TERENCE SMITH: Network advertisers, like those at this winter's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, value golf's audience demographics-- upscale, highly educated, and highly paid. Consultant Neal Pilson is a former head of CBS Sports.
NEAL PILSON: The Masters is the jewel of CBS' golf coverage, and it gets the best ratings of any golf tournament year-round.
TERENCE SMITH: But Augusta National has released its television sponsors this year to shield them from criticism, and will bear the costs of televising the event.
CBS Sports has declined to comment or take a position, even in response to Martha Burk's proposal that the network boycott the event.
MARTHA BURK: CBS is practically becoming an anti-woman network, I believe.
This is over the public airwaves. It is a venue that discriminates against half their viewers. And they have basically said, "we don't care."
TERENCE SMITH: But while Neal Pilson thinks Augusta National would be wise to admit women, he says CBS should carry the event as it always has.
NEAL PILSON: The experience of Augusta National has been it generates huge audiences. And I think that's where CBS' main obligation lies.
It lies to its viewers who look to CBS to carry the Masters. I don't think that CBS or CBS Sports should be used as a weapon or as an instrument to affect social change. That's not the role of a television sports organization.
TERENCE SMITH: CBS, at this point, has not faced a public outcry from viewers about covering the masters. And Augusta National points to surveys that show that the public is not nearly as absorbed with this story as news organizations are.
An Associated Press poll in December found that three- fourths of those surveyed said Augusta's men-only membership policy had no affect on their view of the Masters. Do you think the public cares about this?
NEAL PILSON: Frankly, no. I take great issue with the amount of media attention that this story has gotten, in the New York Times and in the other papers around the country.
TERENCE SMITH: You think it's excessive?
NEAL PILSON: I do think it's excessive, because what we are talking about here is the admission of one woman to a rather small golf club in Augusta, Georgia.
TERENCE SMITH: But Martha Burk argues that the issue is bigger than golf.
MARTHA BURK: This is not about membership in a club. It's about exclusion, it is about power and keeping women out.
TERENCE SMITH: Burk says that by holding a major tournament there, Augusta National has ceased to be the simple, private club that Mr. Johnson portrays, and she says if the PGA Tour, and not individual golfers would stand up to Augusta, the issue would go away.
MARTHA BURK: They are claiming it's not an official event, but they recognize the winnings, they recognize the victory in the record books. If they were able to just overcome their own hypocrisy in this, they could end it, and they should.
TERENCE SMITH: Golf writer Bob Verdi says Augusta National has always done things its own way...
TERENCE SMITH: ...And that the players are individual competitors who may play where they wish, regardless of the PGA Tour.
BOB VERDI: I think that they have decided that it's not in the tour's domain, because I think you get into a very gray area there if the tour starts saying to its member players, "well, you can't go there," forgetting that these are independent contractors.
TERENCE SMITH: Neal Pilson predicts that the stalemate will not go on indefinitely.
NEAL PILSON: My guess is somewhere between now and the 2004 tournament-I don't expect any change for this coming year-- a woman quietly may be admitted to Augusta National.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, the lovely course at Augusta is being prepared for this April's Tournament. The golfers have received their invitations from the club, and Martha Burk and her supporters are planning to take their protest to the streets outside Augusta National.