The Masters golf tournament begins Thursday. But don't expect to hear much about the beautiful azaleas or the lightning-quick greens on the Augusta National golf course. Or even whether Tiger Woods or Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson will win the year's first major men's golf championship.

This year's Masters is going to be different. Everyone will be arguing about Augusta National, the private golf club that hosts the tournament. You see, Augusta National has no female members. No women. Martha Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations thinks that the club should invite women to be members. Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, thinks that the club should be free to choose its own members.

What do I think? I think that Augusta National has the right to decide who can join its club. If Augusta National wants to have just men in the club, that is its right as a private club. But just because Augusta National has the right to do it, that does not make it right. I think the club should welcome women to be members.

The biggest problem with Augusta National keeping women out of its world-famous club, however, is not that a few rich women can't belong to the beautiful club that hosts the Masters. The biggest problem with Augusta National (and other clubs) keeping women out is that it sends a terrible message to girls everywhere that golf is a guy sport. And that's not true.

Golf is a great game for everyone. Think about it: You don't have to be big and strong like in football. Or fast like in soccer and basketball. You just have to be a decent athlete who is willing to practice. There are plenty of great female golfers. Like Annika Sorenstam. Or how about 13-year-old Michelle Wie? She's sensational, and almost won a pro tournament last week. Still, a lot more men and boys play golf than women and girls. The National Golf Foundation estimates that only 20 percent of the golfers in the United States are female.

Some people are trying to change that. Elena Melchert started Girls Love Golf (GLG) two years ago after she took her daughter, Jeanmarie, to a driving range in Northern Virginia. Melchert was hoping to get Jeanmarie to love golf. The problem was that Jeanmarie was the only girl on the range. "It looked like another world that would not welcome her," Melchert remembers. And, like most girls, 12-year-old Jeanmarie enjoys hanging out with other girls.

So Melchert posted some signs at local courses. In the first year she found a few girls like Jeanmarie who were interested in golf. The GLG program kept getting bigger as more girls joined. Now, Melchert expects around 100 girls (ages 7 to 17) of all skill levels to participate in the 2003 tournaments, clinics and driving range parties at courses and ranges all over Northern Virginia. Check out the GLG Web site (www.girlslovegolf.com) if you want to get in on the fun.

With so many girls getting into golf, Melchert hopes that Virginia will start to have girls' high school golf teams. Right now, if a girl wants to play for her high school she has to play on a boys' team.

Who knows, maybe some day, with folks such as Elena Melchert and programs such as Girls Love Golf, girls will have their own high school golf teams in Virginia. And women will be members at Augusta National.

Fred Bowen writes KidsPost's Friday sports column and is the author of sports novels for kids.

Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson, with Tiger Woods after the 2002 Masters, says his golf club should be free to choose the members it wants. Martha Burk, below, says women should be invited to join.