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MASTERS TOURNAMENT Judge denies protests outside front gate



Published: Tue, April 8, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



A soaking rain canceled practice and kept out spectators.

COMBINED DISPATCHES

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- On the first day of Masters week, there was more action in court than on the course.

In two separate rulings Monday, a federal judge turned down Martha Burk's request to protest outside the front gate of Augusta National Golf Club.

Meanwhile, heavy thunderstorms forced the club to postpone a valuable day of practice for the tournament, which begins Thursday. The gates never opened to fans, either, the first time that's happened during Masters week since 1983.

Rich Beem, winner of the PGA Championship, was eager to play the course after qualifying for his first Masters. His day ended after about a half-hour on the soggy practice range.

"I wanted to get out early," Beem said. "It's frustrating, but that's how it goes."

Won first last year

Beem won his first major at last year's PGA Championship but does not consider himself a favorite at the Masters. One thing he has learned from watching the tournament over the years is that experience means a lot at Augusta National.

"I was watching something on the Golf Channel last week where Tiger Woods said this is the ultimate think-tank of a golf course," Beem said. "You've got to have a lot of experience to break through with a win. I don't have great expectations this week. Until you shoot that 66 or 65 out here, you are going to struggle. It's a pretty intimidating golf course."

Burk is planning to protest Augusta National's all-male membership during the third round of the tournament Saturday.

Burk, who heads the National Council of Women's Organizations, wanted to post 24 demonstrators outside the front gate of Augusta National and 200 more across the street.

Protesting site

But Sheriff Ronald Strength, who has authority over public protests, told Burk and other groups the only place they can protest legally is a 5.1-acre site nearly a half-mile from the gate.

Strength said there's too much traffic along Washington Road, which runs in front of the club, to ensure safe protests.

ACLU lawyers challenged the ordinance, saying it gives the sheriff too much power to approve or deny protests and dictate their location.

U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. sided with the city.

"The ordinance does not discriminate against a particular viewpoint or limit speech to certain subject matters," he wrote in a 17-page decision.

Second ruling

In a second ruling, Bowen said the sheriff acted properly to enforce the ordinance.

The judge called the area outside Augusta National "profoundly congested" during the Masters and said allowing protesters to congregate outside the gate presents "a realistic, plausible, even probable potential for some accidental injury."

Tiger Woods, who will try to become the first player to win three straight Masters, did not show up Monday. Still, it was a good day for him because of all the rain.

The damp grass will make the course play even longer than its 7,290 yards, a big advantage for Woods and other big hitters.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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