Peter Corrigan: Burk loses sight of the how and Wie of equality

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The Independent Online

If the shadow of a female is falling across the US Masters this weekend it is not that of Martha Burk, self- appointed scourge of the Augusta National Golf Club, but the younger silhouette of Michelle Wie, a 13-year-old Hawaiian golfer who is likely to have a far more devastating effect on golf's future constitution.

Not that Burk has not had an impact on the first Major tournament of the year. Her assault on the club's lack of women members has captured the attention of the United States and much of the world in which watching the Masters has become one of the first rites of spring.

She is more concerned with the rights of women, and she and a crowd of her supporters were demonstrating outside the club yesterday with a ring of high hedges and fences separating them from the lushest of the world's courses.

It is a little like standing in hell and complaining about heaven. I do not mean to be that rude about the town of Augusta, but the fact that the place is far from pretty accentuates the difference when you walk through the gates; and, yes, to all golfers, male and female, it is heaven.

If you don't understand that, you will not even get close to winning a battle against the defenders of the game's less attractive traditions. The equality Burk seeks is going to be won by brave young women players and not by protesters; especially those who admit, as Burk has done, that "I really don't care about the Masters and these men and their games of golf".

The aforementioned Miss Wie, on the other hand, cares passionately for golf and is desperate to play in the Masters herself. The number of those who dismiss that ambition as a wild fantasy are decreasing by the day. The distance she will have to travel is a million times further than the distance between Burk and the nearest megaphone, but it will be the far more significant journey.

Burk's antagonist is Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, whose ridiculous overreaction to what she calls "an unremarkable letter" provided the spark for the whole conflagration. Hootie let slip one little gem last week when he said that if a woman qualified to play in the Masters she would be welcome. There are various ways to qualify, and how long it will take for a 13-year-old girl to reach that high peak is difficult to estimate, but at 5ft 11in and weighing 11st Wie is already capable of driving over 300 yards. She knocked out a 64 at her home club in Honolulu when she was 10 years old and has finished midway in a 93-strong male field in a qualifier for the Sony Open with a 73 off the back tees.

She has been offered entry into a men's Canadian Tour event in August and has been collecting a stream of testimonies to her promise. Inevitably, she is compared to Tiger Woods, whose pictures adorn her bedroom walls, and she hopes to copy his flight path by winning a golf scholarship to Stanford University.

Her ultimate goal is to play in the Masters, and if fate decrees she confronts her idol she comforts herself with the thought: "He'll be pretty old by then". I have often been derided for expressing the opinion that a woman will one day win The Open, but I am prepared to concede that one might win the Masters first.

Physiological differences are usually trotted out as the reason why my theory is barmy, but those arguments get weaker with each generation. An important beachhead in the development of women's golf will be established as soon as this summer. Annika Sorenstam, the 32-year-old Swede who won 11 events on the women's Tour in the US last year, will play alongside the men in the Colonial Tournament in Texas next month; the first woman to play in a men's PGA Tour event since the remarkable amateur Babe Zaharias qualified for the Los Angeles Open in 1945.

Sorenstam did not qualify, she was invited, and it was one of a dozen invites she received after revealing her interest in playing against men. Later in the year Suzy Whaley, a club professional from Connecticut, will compete with the top male stars in the Greater Hartford Open.

For both, distance off the tee will be a major disadvantage. But that is not a problem young Wie is going to face, and one of the more important aspects of Wie's development so far is that she spent most of her early days competing against boys and men. Her size and athleticism are as remarkable as her golfing ability. It is a point tirelessly prosecuted in this space that if we genuinely want to promote women's sport we must encourage girls to play with boys – and the only way to ensure that is to play one game.

While women remain separate within the clubs they do belong to, with their own administration, their own competitions, their own tees and stroke indices, it is easy to regard them as a different entity and easier to keep them at arms' length in a scene traditionally dominated by men. Long before Burk recognised it as a promising cause, women were making determined attempts to batter down some of golf's most impregnable male bastions. But trying to muscle in on the male preserves is not the tactic. If women want to get out of their golfing ghetto they should just leave it, instead of continually banging their heads against the walls that protect many of our clubs from the realities of life.

It is not enough to blaze away at the custodians of the game. "Blazer-wearing bigots" is the cliché used by the politically correct school of journalism to describe golf officials, and it may well be a fitting description in many cases. As a former captain of a club, I have had my share of this controversy and I have been called all the names but, rightly or wrongly, my only concern was the interests of the club.

Golf is a slave to traditions and rules, many of which seem ridiculous. It is also the best-run, the most disciplined and the most sporting of any of the major games. Could you have that proud reputation without the downsides? That's the question that the stuffy old farts everywhere want to answer very slowly and deliberately. Maligned as Augusta National is, the club have made a massive contribution to the game's continuing fascination, and we in the UK and Europe have particular reason to recognise that the US Masters had more to do with the explosion of golf's popularity here in the Eighties and Nineties than any other single factor. Watching Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo (twice) and Ian Woosnam win the title for four consecutive years between 1988 and 1991 inspired countless numbers to take up the game, which now flourishes like few others.

None of that absolves Augusta National from the need to modernise their attitudes. But forcing them to elect some rich dame from Arizona as a token lady will solve nothing and lead nowhere. The answer lies in bringing equality through the game. The Wies of the future will achieve that. Burk is barking up the wrong tee.