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Augusta marches to beat of its own drum

Billy Payne
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what you think.

When it comes to membership policies at Augusta National Golf Club, it only matters what the current members think. And they aren’t keen on sharing that information.

If there’s one thing we learned during Wednesday’s annual pre-tournament interview session with Masters chairman Billy Payne, it’s that any and all discourse about internal matters at the club will remain internal until the time when – or more likely, if – he decides to publicize them.

The polarizing issue concerning Augusta National Golf Club’s all-male membership policy has once again vaulted into the forefront of discussion, based largely on a pair of long-standing traditions.

The first is that each of the last four CEOs of corporate partner IBM have been invited to become Augusta National members. The second is that the club has never granted membership to any female.

Therein lies the rub: Earlier this year, IBM announced that its newest CEO is a woman named Virginia Rometty, which means that when it comes to one of these long-standing traditions, something’s got to give.

Which will it be? Only those ambling through this course in a green jacket can answer that question, but on Wednesday it was once again made known that they will not answer such questions, repeating the sentiment during what became a contentious session with the assembled media.

The initial query followed earlier comments from Payne that Augusta National is committed to continued improvements, punctuated by the words, “Just being good is not good enough.” It offered the chairman an opportunity to address the issue directly.

Q: You began talking about a number of the changes that happened here at the course. Since you've been chairman, all of those changes have been well documented. One of the changes that has not happened to the club is the all-male membership. Wonder if you ever foresee that changing, and why or why not.

A: Well, as has been the case, whenever that question is asked, all issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members, and that statement remains accurate and remains my statement.

Just a few minutes later, a second question about the issue was proffered, this time requesting more specific information on Rometty’s potential for future membership.

Q: Is it possible to elaborate further on why membership for Mrs. Rometty wouldn't be considered, just to give us a little more spiel on that.

A: I guess two reasons: One, we don't talk about our private deliberations. No. 2, we especially don't talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question.

At this point in the proceedings, it was becoming eminently clear that Payne wouldn’t budge on membership talk, and certainly wouldn’t address the possibility of a female member.

That didn’t mean the questions stopped.

Q: Mr. Chairman, I note your concerns about the growth of golf around the world, and I also note that Augusta National is a very famous golf club. Don't you think it would send a wonderful message to young girls around the world if they knew that one day they could join this very famous golf club?

A: Once again, that deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it.

That’s three now, but they kept coming – and the interview session grew more tense with each follow-up.

Q: Seems like a mixed message, Billy, is what he's saying. You're throwing a lot of money into growing the game, and yet there's still a perception that certain people are excluded.

A: That is a membership issue that I'm not going to – thank you for your –

Q: It sends a wonderful message to girls around the world that they could join this emblematic golf club; it's not a membership question.

A: Thank you for your question, sir.

A few great points, a few great questions. Meanwhile, Payne continued to steadfastly hold his ground, eschewing any and all suggestions as to why females have never been granted membership, rather than using the platform as an open forum for debate.

Still, the questions kept coming, with increasing ingenuity and creativity.

Q: Mr. Chairman, as a grandfather, what would you say to granddaughters? How would you explain leading a club that does not include female membership?

A: Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that's a question that deals with membership, and –

Q: It's a kitchen-table, personal question.

A: Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal.

Even an ensuing question about the number of questions was met with a retort that hardly addressed the current issues.

Q: Billy, kind of on that note, you talked about what a great Masters it was last year and how much anticipation there is coming into this year's Masters. I'm curious how you felt when this issue comes up again on the eve of the Masters, and do you feel it reflects negatively on either the club or the tournament?

A: I think there's certainly a difference of opinion on that, and I don't think I have formed an opinion on that. But certainly there's – people have different opinions on that subject.

There were a few more queries about other topics – the weather, the practice facility, the tournament’s Internet site – but the final exchange of the morning again efforted a response from Payne that could shed further insight into his thoughts as to why women have been excluded from membership.

Q: You said your conversations with your granddaughters are private. What would you suggest I tell my daughters?

A: I don't know your daughters.

Q: That at the most prestigious golf club in the country, they are not –

A: I have no advice for you there, sir.

With that, the meeting adjourned. Payne exited the room without remotely hinting about the future of the club’s membership policies. Meanwhile, the rest of us were left with the knowledge of something that Augusta National officials have never been bashful about when it comes to internal protocol.

It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what you think.