AUGUSTA, Ga. – As a private entity, Augusta National Golf Club has the right to choose its members, set its policies and pretty much do whatever it wishes as long as it's obeying the law.
Whether it ever admits a female member, let alone Virginia "Ginni" M. Rometty, the current CEO of IBM and a title that has traditionally also resulted in membership, is up to the club. There's even plenty to appreciate about an organization that refuses to bow to public pressure. Besides, as equal-rights issues go, getting one filthy rich, well-connected woman into this place isn't exactly a game changer for America.
That said, Billy Payne, the club chairman, boxed himself into his own corner Wednesday on the issue.
He spent much of his annual press conference talking about his distress over the sagging popularity and participation in the game. He went on and on both commending Augusta National for all of its efforts to find new players, particularly the young. And he kept challenging the club to do even more.
"We can do better," Payne said. "Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation."
And then he steadfastly refused to discuss the club's tradition that tells half the population – and a huge potential growth area for the game – that they will never be considered equal at the most prestigious and famous course in the world.
Augusta National is a private club trying to play a public role as the face of golf, as the shining attraction that should draw people to the sport.
And so whether you think a female should or should not be a member, you can see the disconnect. My interest in Augusta dealing with the issue is as a curious bystander. The process is fascinating; the rich guys squirming … interesting; the debate a reasonable and harmless back-and-forth.
It's not important to me who belongs to Augusta National. I am simply intrigued at how the membership justifies it, bats it around and explains it. And, eventually, how it come to invite a woman because eventually, even if it's decades from now, it will.
The issue flared up again this year because every man who ever held the job of CEO of IBM – three living, five deceased – was a member here, according to multiple media accounts. On Jan. 1, Rometty, a woman, took over the job. Bloomberg News Service reports she is a golfer.
So there was the conundrum. It's no longer about Augusta National deciding whether to invite a woman. It feels like a decision to not invite a woman. There's a difference. Payne was asked about it Wednesday on the eve of the Masters. He delivered the club's traditional response:
"All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members."
Fair enough. Except Payne spent most of the rest of his time talking up his personal and the club's public concern about making golf more accessible and open.
You can't talk endlessly about the need for inclusion and then refuse comment on the most famous exclusionary policy in American sports.
And that's where Payne started getting battered a bit by the media. Here was the most notable exchange.
Question: 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?
Payne: Once again, that deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it.
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.
Payne: 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.
Payne: Thank you for your question, sir.
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?
Payne: 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.
Payne: Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal.
Later Payne was asked about what fathers should tell their daughters about not having a shot at membership here and he declined to offer advice. There really wasn't much Payne would say.
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The problem with Payne's and Augusta's silence is their willingness – even eagerness – to speak out on so many other issues. The chairman offers opinions on all sorts of subjects and openly discusses lots of opinions.
Payne is the same guy who, without provocation, ripped Tiger Woods to shreds two years ago for his off-course behavior that had absolutely nothing to do with the business of Augusta National or the Masters.
"It's not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here," Payne said in 2010. "It is the fact he disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids and grandkids.
"As he ascended in our rankings of the world's great golfers, he became an example to our kids," Payne continued. "But as he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility."
Augusta National wants to do things its way. No women. And it has the right to do it.
The club and its chairman sure would be better served, though, if they left it at that, but neither do. They attack the shortcomings of individual players, continue to pump up their role as grand ambassadors of the sport and the moral conscious of the game.
With fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility …
These are Payne's words, and who can argue with the chairman of a club of substantial fame and fortune?
This isn't really a civil rights issue at this point, but rather a prolonged game of public relations. In that regard, Billy Payne didn't do so well Wednesday.
Of course, in the end, he still controls the rulebook and the membership rolls. And that isn't changing because of some press conference.
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