AUGUSTA, Ga. – Augusta National chairman Billy Payne spent nearly 30 minutes with the media Wednesday at Augusta National, his annual news conference on the eve of the Masters.
The club’s all-male membership policy was the most heated topic as Payne was steadfast in saying the club will not publicly discuss membership issues. The latest interest in the topic comes since Virginia Rometty was named CEO of IBM earlier this year. The previous four CEOs of IBM – a longtime corporate partner of the Masters – have all been members of Augusta National.
“One, we don’t talk about our private deliberations,” Payne said. “No. 2, we especially don’t talk about them when a named candidate is part of the question.”
Payne was asked questions related to membership on 11 different occasions and declined each time. One of the more thoughtful questions asked Payne what he would say to granddaughters everywhere if they asked why they could not be included as members of Augusta National.
“Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that’s a question that deals with membership,” he said.
Other highlights from the meeting with the chairman:
• Payne began the conference by paying respects to former Masters champion Seve Ballesteros and journalists Jim Huber and Furman Bisher, who all died in the past year.
“I remember a very recent exchange of letters,” Payne said of Bisher, a longtime newspaper man and staple at the Masters for more than 60 years. “He told me that he was proud of me. I told him he was my hero. Furman Bisher, there will never be another one.”
• This year’s Masters will be broadcast in more than 200 countries, many of which will have limited commercial interruptions. Weather on Tuesday evening in Augusta caused a lot of debris and Rae’s Creek was overrun, although it wasn’t high enough to reach the famous Hogan Bridge.
• The club does not have a stance on anchored putters and their place in the game.
“The long putter is obviously conforming today,” said Fred Ridley, former USGA president who is Augusta National’s chair of the competition committee. “We are followers in this regard. But we certainly will be guided by the decisions and the rulings of the governing bodies like we always have.”
• Payne formed a small committee of members to look at ways Augusta National can help grow the game.
“The problems are so easy to identify – golf is too hard, it takes too long to play, it’s not a team sport, it’s too expensive,” Payne said. “The solution is more difficult, but we must try.
“Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation. Whether we lead occasionally or follow always, it doesn’t matter. It only matters that we try.”
• The club did not consider inviting Ernie Els this year.
“He’s a great player and we expect him to be back with us shortly and often,” Payne said. “But after evaluating all of the circumstances, we chose obviously not to extend an invitation but look forward to seeing him soon.”
• Augusta National has not yet evaluated how the PGA Tour’s new fiscal year schedule in 2013-2014 will impact the Masters’ field.
Said Ridley: “It’s my understanding that (PGA Tour officials) are in the process now of evaluating the impact of what that is going to do on the allocation of points toward their season-ending Tour Championship. As we do every year, we evaluate our invitation criteria and that will be something we are looking at based on where the PGA Tour comes out on that evaluation.”