Four months from the start of the prestigious Masters, this city of 200,000 people is already bracing for what likely will be one of the most contentious golf tournaments in history.

At the center of the firestorm is Augusta National Golf Club, home every April to the Masters, the first major championship of the golf calendar and an annual and much-needed economic windfall for many of the residents of the state's second-largest city. At the club's virtually hidden main entrance off the commercially dense Washington Road, the only marker is a small wooden sign with the club's logo and the words "Members Only."

Since its creation in 1932, that has meant "men only," a practice challenged this summer by Martha Burk, the chairman of the National Council of Women's Organizations. Burk's private letter to club chairman William "Hootie" Johnson set off a very public debate over whether a private club forfeits its constitutional rights to choose its own membership when it hosts a very public event that annually generates $20 million to $25 million in profits for the club.

The controversy has entangled some of the sport's most powerful and popular figures, as well as a club membership that includes some of the country's wealthiest and most influential individuals.

Most of the residents here -- many of whom have for years reaped the benefits of sharing a neighborhood with the country's most famous golf course -- just want the issue resolved, one way or another.

"It would really be nice if it would all just go away," Mayor Bob Young said recently.

Despite those hopes, the city is girding itself as if it won't. Jesse Jackson has said he is prepared to join the hundreds of women who have told Burk they plan to demonstrate here during Masters week, but Augusta-Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength, Augusta's chief law enforcement officer, said in a recent interview, "They won't get to do what they want to do, I can assure you of that."

Less than five months before the first ball is struck in the 2003 Masters, Burk admits she has "no earthly idea" how it will play out, and if Johnson has any idea himself, at the moment he's not saying. While neither side is showing signs of compromise, the public seems evenly divided: Forty-six percent of those questioned in an Associated Press poll released last week said the club had the right to be all male; 46 percent said a club holding such a prestigious tournament should have female members. An ABC/ESPN poll released Nov. 25 indicated 54 percent of adults oppose Augusta's membership policy, while 39 percent support it.

Everyone seems to have an opinion, but some key figures aren't sharing theirs. Johnson, 71, a retired banker who lives in Columbia, S.C., declined an interview request, as did 12 other club members contacted by The Washington Post. Their ranks include Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett, a member of The Post's board of directors; U.S. Olympic Committee President Lloyd Ward; Arnold Palmer, a four-time Masters champion, and former U.S. senator Sam Nunn.

This week, Treasury secretary nominee John W. Snow resigned his Augusta National membership in a preemptive move to seek approval of his nomination. Snow's resignation follows that of Thomas Wyman, a former chief executive at CBS -- the network that has televised the tournament the last 46 years. Two weeks ago, Wyman, 72 and a 25-year member, became the first to resign his membership over the issue

Burk, a 60-year-old Texas native whose organization represents 160 groups and 7 million women, argues that corporate chieftains running public companies that market to women or have anti-discrimination policies in their corporate missions can't remain members of a club that excludes women. She applauded Snow's decision to leave the club before his confirmation hearings.

"Mr. Snow has done exactly what he should have done," she said. "The NCWO is extremely happy to see that being associated with sex discrimination is no longer acceptable for public servants. . . . We would have opposed [the nomination] on the basis of his membership in Augusta National."

In response to a series of 35 letters Burk sent to high-profile corporate members in October asking them to withdraw their Masters support, several wrote back to say they believe the club should admit women, including Citigroup Chairman Sanford Weill, the USOC's Ward and American Express Chairman Kenneth Chenault. But in recent weeks, sources said, the club has told its members not to comment on the issue.

"Sooner or later, they're going to have to" admit women, said Hugh Price, national president of the Urban League. "It's inevitable. It's just a question of when and how. I think the corporate and sponsor issues will force the issue. They have a number of members involved in the corporate world who simply can not stand up to the pressure of excluding women, and if they want to continue to be a major venue for a national event, they'll have to change. CBS will be under huge pressure, too."

CBS Sports President Sean McManus has said from the start the network will air the event, and he and other CBS executives have declined to comment ever since. After Johnson announced the club would have no TV sponsors this year in an effort to alleviate pressure on them, the network is expected to lose about $1.5 million this year, but that loss is preferable to the risk of losing the highest-rated tournament on TV to a competitor.

"There is still enough time to have a resolution to all of this," Burk said in a recent interview. "If there is not, it's inevitable there will be pickets and demonstrations, whether they're NCWO organizations or not. . . . But I hope, and I really mean this, that cooler heads prevail and it doesn't come to that."

The PGA Remains Aloof

Professional golf faced a similar controversy prior to the 1990 PGA Championship, golf's final major championship staged annually by the PGA of America, which is not related to the PGA Tour. That year, a public outcry, which included pressure from sponsors and television advertisers, forced the tournament's host, Shoal Creek Golf Club in Birmingham, to admit its first black member.

Shortly thereafter, the PGA Tour, which conducts 40 weekly events per year but none of the four majors, adopted a policy that it will not allow its events to be played at clubs or courses that discriminate based on race, religion or gender. But PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has steadfastly maintained that because the tour is not a "co-sponsor" of the Masters, Augusta National does not fit under tour discrimination guidelines.

Such a defense rings hollow for Burk, who sees the tour and the club joined at the hip on a wide variety of fronts. The most obvious? More than 80 PGA Tour players play in the Masters every year, and the club announced just last week changes in qualifications that could add even more tour members to the elite field. Some have speculated Finchem's stance is directly related to those changes. Both he and the club declined to comment.

The Masters for years has used the tour's money list or tour tournaments won to determine its field, and the tour uses Masters money earnings and other statistics in its official player records. The Masters champion gets an automatic five-year exemption to play the PGA Tour.

Finchem was the driving force behind starting the First Tee program to make the game more accessible to young people by building facilities in urban areas, and Augusta National is an original First Tee member and is on the First Tee's Oversight Board, along with the PGA Tour, the United States Golf Association, LPGA and PGA of America, buttressing its reputation as a very public golf organization.

In response to a July 30 letter from Burk asking the tour to withdraw recognition of the Masters based on its own written discrimination policies, Finchem wrote in reply, that "since the PGA Tour does not cosponsor The Masters Tournament and does not have a contractual relationship with The Masters . . . we are unable to require Augusta National to implement our host club policy with respect to The Masters."

Finchem has declined to make any other comment on the issue, always referring reporters back to his initial letter to Burk.

"His position is pretty indefensible, considering the tour's relationship with that club," one USGA official said this week. "Maybe his players like what he's doing, but he's really made himself look very bad."

The USGA, which conducts the U.S. Open among its national championships and determines the rules of the game in this country, also has ties to Augusta National. Many of its rules officials are invited to officiate at the Masters every year, and the Masters champion gets a five-year exemption into the U.S. Open. The winners of USGA events such as the U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur, Publinks and Mid-Amateur also are given exemptions to play in the Masters.

USGA President Reed McKenzie, a Minneapolis attorney, said those exemptions will continue but that his organization does "not comment about the policies of member clubs." Three members of the USGA's 15-man executive committee -- Walter Driver, Fred Reinhart and Fred Ridley -- are members of Augusta National, but McKenzie said that had no bearing on the USGA's stance.

For many, including former Augusta National member Wyman, the Shoal Creek episode represents the role model for how this issue should be resolved.

"In 1990, [Augusta National] was forced, in order to keep the tournament, to have black members invited to join," Wyman told CNN two weeks ago in the wake of his membership resignation. "It was done quickly. It was done gracefully. There are now seven black members. They're wonderfully well-accepted and everyone thinks it's a good idea. And it could be precisely the same with the women."

Interest and Principal

Back in Augusta, the issue is much more economic than social. It is often said revenue pouring in that week represents a 13th month of income for local businesses. More than 2,000 homes are rented to out-of-town visitors, media and corporate clients, and so far, rentals are up 23 percent from a year ago at this time.

Local law enforcement officers are hired and paid by the club to provide security, crowd and traffic control, getting $15 an hour. In the days before the course shuts down for the summer in May, many of those paid workers and other volunteers are invited to play the storied course, creating even more psychic income.

Mayor Young, who won a run-off election recently for a new term, also said that while some public funds are spent on the tournament, "We don't do anything for Augusta we don't do for any other big event coming to town."

They might have to next April. In response to Burk's and Jackson's promises of demonstrations, Sheriff Strength also said any protests or picket lines will require proper permits, and "they're going to have to stay where we tell them to stay unless they're on private property. I can tell you there's no way we'll let them on the sidewalk in front of the club. There's too much traffic, and it would not be safe."

Masters ticket holders usually enter the premises by car or on foot through entrances just off Washington Road, a well-traveled four-lane street. Across the road are a number of commercial enterprises, including several strip mall shopping areas and a sidewalk at "Masters Corner" populated during tournament week by vendors selling unofficial Masters merchandise.

"We can't let them picket across the street either because of all the vendors," Strength said. "We've looked at two or three different places we might let them picket, but between now and the tournament, that'll probably change 25 different times. . . . If it causes a problem, we won't have it."

Down in the assessor's office, Augusta National apparently gets other breaks. Records indicate that the club's fair market value real estate appraisal is about $26.1 million, and under Georgia state law, it pays property taxes based on 40 percent of that figure. According to the records, last year, the club paid about $299,000 in property tax, about the equivalent of a 30-second commercial in the 2002 Masters telecast last April.

Said one city employee familiar with the club's appraised value: "It's the world's greatest golf course, and that's all its worth? That's a joke. But that's the power of Augusta National."

"We think it's equitable," said Sonny Reece, the Richmond County tax assessor. "We don't give them any breaks whatsoever, and I don't get any tickets either. Augusta National is good for Augusta, Georgia"

Said Mayor Young: "They pay property tax, they pay sales tax and they provide jobs to local citizens and contribute to local charities. To us, they're like any other business or company. And I'm not familiar with them getting any special treatment on taxes."

The club appears to get special treatment in the local newspaper, the Augusta Chronicle, owned by publisher William "Billy" Morris III, a longtime Augusta National member. According to sources, Morris recently called his editors and demanded that a long profile of Burk scheduled to appear on a Sunday front page be shoved back to pages 10 and 11. He killed the accompanying Burk question and answer sidebar.

Morris also refused to run a recent piece by a writer who agreed in principle with Augusta's position, but nevertheless urged the club to give in and admit a woman for the good of the game and the tournament. Morris did not return telephone calls seeking response, and his paper's president, general manager and executive editor declined to comment.

"People in this town are afraid to speak out about the club, but I'm not," said Anna Hargis, who recently suffered a landslide loss in a race for the state assembly, four years after narrowly being defeated in another election for a seat on the Public Service Commission. A nurse by occupation and a whistle blower whose complaints against the natural gas industry a few years ago led to the replacement of 2,300 miles of leaky pipes, Hargis says she's very much in the minority among the local population.

"Everyone's afraid to take them on, and you know the paper won't do it, not with Billy Morris in charge," she said. "You know what most people worry about? That all this stuff might hurt them getting $4,000 to rent their house. The mentality of the town basically is let the rich boys do what they want to do. To me, it's totally sexist. I mean, Hootie Johnson has four daughters. How does he sleep at night?"

Special correspondent Steve Argeris contributed to this report from Washington.

It might not be a pretty picture at Augusta National during the Masters tournament. Demonstrations in protest of the private golf club's men-only membership have been promised.Martha Burk, the chairman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, wrote protesting club's membership policy to . . . . . . William "Hootie" Johnson, Augusta National's chairman, who indicated the club wouldn't be forced into admitting women.It's not exactly the lady or the Tiger, but some golfers, including Tiger Woods, have been encouraged to press Augusta National to admit female members.