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Occasionally, someone states his case too clearly for his own good. He speaks so simply that, in a flash, it becomes obvious that the basic premise of his argument is deeply flawed or is a mere deception to deflect attention from larger issues.

Wednesday, William "Hootie" Johnson, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, did a better job than any critic at undermining his own cause of keeping women out of his club.

"We are a private club . . . getting together periodically for camaraderie, just as thousands of clubs and organizations do all over America," Johnson wrote in a statement. "Just because we host a golf tournament, because some of our members are well-known, should not cause us to be viewed differently."

To say such words off the cuff would be ludicrous. But to write them out, then to speak them in public as a distillation of your central position is just stunning. You take your audience for fools. Or else your self-delusion is at alarming levels.

Augusta National is not like "thousands of clubs . . . all over America." In fact, it resembles only a handful of clubs in the world with such a concentration of wealth, economic influence and political reach. None of them runs a big public sports event.

The National, as it calls itself, is several things, including the host of the Masters and a private golf club for men. But what is its defining characteristic, its core nature, its reason for being? That is the central question in determining whether Augusta National's behavior, even if it is legal, is reprehensible.

Augusta National is absolutely not a club whose main purpose is to allow men to get together and share some special male bond, as Johnson claims. It is not even a club whose main purpose is to put on the Masters or share a love of golf. Those traits are incidental to the core nature of being a member here.

So, what is Augusta National? At its core, this is a club where incredibly rich or influential people, who are part of national and regional elites, meet because of what they have in common -- enormous power, much of it economic.

And not one of those members is a woman.

You can be a man, a golf lover or even a lifelong supporter of the Masters and those attributes alone give you no chance whatsoever of ever being a member of Augusta National.

But the day you become a billionaire, a U.S. senator or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company you suddenly have a chance -- perhaps remote -- of being an Augusta member. Without such credentials, especially in the last 25 years, your chances are close to nil. The few exceptions only prove the rule.

Even Bill Gates must wait on the doorstep for membership here. Yet on Wednesday, Johnson equated Augusta National with "health clubs, sewing circles, Junior League and the Shriners."

Many have given the National some benefit of the doubt because of Johnson's lifelong record. "I do have a reputation for fighting discrimination," Johnson said Wednesday. "I have a good record and I'm proud of it." But that's wearing thin.

Johnson talked Wednesday about how "for centuries and centuries men like to get together with men every now and then and women like to get together with women every now and then."

That's true. And the Constitution defends it. But plenty of complex issues involve more than one principle. Augusta National, for its own purposes, is hiding behind the shield of a good cause -- single-gender clubs. That is shabby, too.

The National is appropriating an important element in the Constitution -- the right to free association -- so that a group of the world's most powerful men can thumb their nose at a modern world where equal pay for equal work is a vital issue and a huge majority of the population opposes gender glass ceilings.

Johnson tells his homey tales as if gender affinity -- not uber-networking and discussion of the business deals of Bank of America, Citicorp and American Express -- were the core appeal of membership. Members don't have to fly to Georgia to play golf. But they do. To show off for others. To say, "Tiger hit it here." To talk some serious shop. Or set the stage for it.

Martha Burk, Johnson's nemesis in this 10-month national debate, states repeatedly that her protest is to "the morality, not the legality" of Augusta National's stance. Wednesday Johnson, accidentally, helped make that distinction for her.

"This issue is about power and concentrated power which specifically excludes women," Burk said Wednesday by phone. "Corporate leaders claim that they do not discriminate in their companies. But, by their membership at Augusta, they are legitimizing sex discrimination at the highest levels."

Single-gender clubs are a safe and settled issue in this country. They are not in danger because of anything that happens here. Why defend with bared teeth a principal that no one contests?

"If I drop dead right now, I promise our position will not change on this issue," Johnson said. "It's not my issue alone."

Why are so many members still with him?

Augusta National is conservative in the original sense of the word -- the club wants to conserve the values of a previous time, epitomized by founder Bobby Jones in the 1930s. However, the world view that is being conserved goes much further back than that. Jones was decades behind the times in his ideals within his own era and very proud of it.

Jones harkened back to times when honor, service, amateurism, elite clubs, aristocratic behavior, sportsmanship and an abhorrence of crass commercialism were high values. Much of Jones is the best of the Masters. But some of Jones hasn't worn too well. The idea of the most influential men in America belonging to his club -- and few others -- would have delighted him. The idea of no women would have been fine, too.

Many members here, with Jones as a hero, are not a mere decade behind the times, but antiquated by a full century. It's their badge of honor. Ben Franklin in the French court couldn't put more stock in elegant manners and good form. But they pay a price in hostility from commoners for their elitist airs.

Burke and those who join her Saturday are fighting a tiny skirmish in an important battle for women's rights that will, eventually, be won. Johnson's grandstanding about the rights of single-gender clubs becomes more transparent with time.

In reality, just hard, modern, corporate reality, Augusta National is a bunch of super-powerful guys who don't want to be told when the first women should be allowed in their club.

They'll do it when they're good and ready, Johnson says -- on their timetable, probably some day, but no promises -- even though they'll make millions this weekend by inviting the public to pay to watch their golf tournament.

If it walks and talks like discrimination, perhaps Augusta members of good conscience, of which there are many, should ask themselves honestly if perhaps it is discrimination.