Down the road from where the world's most prestigious golf tournament will soon be held, Todd Manzi and a handful of friends are warming up for the big event.
Waving placards at passing traffic near Augusta National Golf Club, the group is taking aim at Martha Burk, the women's rights advocate who has stirred passions with her campaign to get the private club to accept female members. Drivers toot their encouragement at the signs, which say things such as "Burk is a sexist" and "Women say stop Burk."
For Manzi and his supporters, today's modest gathering is an early indication of the sideshow that may accompany the annual Masters tournament in April, when Burk plans to lead a protest of the club's all-male membership. Manzi and his group will return then to demonstrate against Burk.
They won't be the only sign-carriers. Publicity over Burk's protest of Augusta's men-only membership has prompted no fewer than half a dozen other groups or persons to organize their own demonstrations during the Masters, one of sports' most stately events and a yearly bonanza for a city with little else to boast about.
Among those expected to picket outside Augusta National are the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, which supports Burk, and Manzi's group, a Web-based effort called TheBurkStopsHere. com, which opposes her. An Augusta group called Women Against Martha Burk has scheduled a protest, as has a Los Angeles-based group called the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, which lines up against Jackson.
Demonstration permits have been issued to a Georgia man claiming to represent an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan so that he can show support for Augusta National, and for an Atlanta man who wants to use the occasion to back President Bush's handling of the Iraq situation. There is even to be a lighthearted gathering by a group called People Against Ridiculous Protests.
At least some of the groups are likely to end up side by side on the five-acre field where the 41-year-old Manzi -- a full-time anti-Burk activist since leaving a marketing job in Tampa, Fla., in September -- gathered with supporters on a recent afternoon.
Adding to the hubbub, Burk, who heads the National Council of Women's Organizations, has sued Augusta-Richmond County because her group was denied permission to protest at the club's front gate and across the street. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit in federal court on behalf of the council, challenging a new ordinance that tightened rules over public protests.
A court hearing has not been scheduled.
Under the new law, Burk's group was assigned to hold its demonstration on the five-acre parcel, which sits about a third of a mile from the front gate and was chosen by the county sheriff, Ronnie Strength.
"Our clients want to be in a location where they can communicate with the attendees and members of the Masters they want to send their message to. If they're far away, they won't be able to do that," said Gerry Weber, legal director of the Georgia ACLU.
The war in Iraq likely will soften the tenor of any protests. Burk and Jackson's group said last week that they planned to proceed with their demonstrations, but will tone them down in keeping with a more solemn national mood.
No one knows how many demonstrators will show up, but the possible spectacle of competing protest groups has compounded the headaches of authorities already facing an onslaught of tens of thousands of golf fans.
"It's more than what we had anticipated," said Richmond County sheriff's Col. Gary Powell, who flipped through a stack of permit applications on his desk. "But we'll be able to handle it."
Most residents of Augusta are quick to defend the 70-year-old club, some out of respect for tradition, others out of recognition that Masters week is such a boon to the patchy economy that it is considered a "13th month" of revenue. Membership policies of the club, which in 1990 added the first black member to its roster of corporate giants and other dignitaries, are of only indirect concern since few locals belong.
But some merchants say the controversy that has swirled around the 300-member Augusta National since summer is taking a toll on the economy as this year's Masters approaches.
Some caterers say they have lost a number of high-end clients as a result of the standoff, during which Augusta National Chairman William W. "Hootie" Johnson dropped corporate sponsorship of the event in order to shield sponsors from pressure from Burk's coalition.
Terry Wick, who runs a catering firm and banquet hall across the street from the club, said he lost about 25% of his expected business during Masters week, which begins April 7, after a Los Angeles company chose not to attend amid reports that the protesters would include the New Black Panther Party.
"The corporate representative called and said that was the last straw -- we're not coming," Wick said. (The New Black Panther group has not returned its permit application.)
Wick said the absence of some large companies would be made up in part by executives and guests of small and mid-size firms who in the past would have been unable to afford holding parties for their favored clients during Masters week.
But the prices that residents are getting for renting out their homes for the week -- a source of income for many Augusta homeowners -- are said to have tumbled. Houses once leased by executives for $15,000 to $20,000 are on the market for $5,000 to $6,000, said Alfred Monsalvatge, who is a partner in TravelMasters, an Augusta company that arranges group trips for companies. Some houses won't be renting at all.
Masters tickets, which have a face value of $125 but can fetch up to $4,000 on the open market, are selling for half that amount, he said. The effects of the controversy are compounded by a broader economic downturn that has curbed travel, and, more recently, by anxieties over what happens in Iraq.
Tourism officials say they have seen no sign of a dip in overall attendance because of the controversy. Hotel bookings are up across the region, and officials are confident all available tickets will get used.
"This is the toughest ticket to get to any sporting event. Demand has always been extremely high, and that will be the case this year," said Barry White, executive director of the Augusta Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "People will be here."
Allison Greene, a restaurant manager who formed Women Against Martha Burk, said her demonstration in downtown Augusta, miles from the golf course, would resemble a friendly cookout more than an angry protest. On the Sunday before Masters week, she'll serve hamburgers and hot dogs and hang banners in praise of the city of 200,000 where she was born and raised.
"My protest is going to have everybody -- men, women and children. It's going to be a really positive message -- nothing negative. We love Augusta. We're proud of Augusta," said Greene, 28, who believes the charges of sexism at Augusta National have unfairly besmirched the city.
"I want everyone who sees the protest to see how positive the people in Augusta are," she said. "We're good people."