COMMENTARY | It was only a matter of time. Too bad it took so long, but that's the way things traditionally work at the Augusta National Golf Club.
Ten years after women's rights advocate Martha Burk famously took on Augusta National and its men-only membership policy -- prompting then-ANGC chairman Hootie Johnson to retort that the club wouldn't succumb "at the point of a bayonet" -- the home of the Masters will welcome two female members this fall.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore are the groundbreaking new members. Don't be surprised if IBM CEO Virginia Rometty is close behind.
Private clubs, as they should, have the right to restrict membership any way they see fit. But unlike exclusive male-only golf clubs, like Cypress Point and Butler National, which opted to maintain the status quo and thus forfeited PGA Tour tournaments (Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and Western Open, respectively), Augusta National wanted to have it both ways. It successfully kept its exclusionary membership policy intact, even though for one week each year it hosts a very public -- and extraordinarily lucrative -- enterprise called the Masters Tournament.
Augusta National got away with it for so long simply because the club is so powerful in golf, and many of its roughly 300 members are equally powerful in other arenas of commerce. Bottom line, everyone is afraid of Augusta National.
Even though PGA Tour regulations since 1990 have prohibited tournaments to be staged at clubs with exclusionary membership policies, the Tour continued to sanction the Masters, taking the cowardly position that it was a "special case." The Tour has zero say in running the Masters, merely counting its prize money as "official." PGA Tour members comprise the majority of the Masters field, but they're independent contractors and no matter how onerous any Augusta National policies might be, the Tour would never even suggest that its members consider not participating.
It's worth noting, too, that the U.S. Golf Association was among the first organizations to ban clubs from hosting a championship -- the USGA runs 13 of them, including the U.S. Open -- if they have exclusionary membership policies. Yet Augusta National is closely allied with the USGA and it's not uncommon for former USGA presidents (who serve two-year terms) to become Augusta National members. Whether that's more of a commentary on the convictions of people who run the USGA or the allure and power of Augusta National, you be the judge.
As for the end of Augusta National's Neanderthal stance on membership, thank Billy Payne. Since taking over from Johnson as ANGC chairman in 2006, Payne has made it a priority to modernize both the club and its marquee tournament. His legacy will be that of the most influential leader at Augusta National since Clifford Roberts, who with Bob Jones co-founded the storied club in 1932.
Payne, 64, is the lawyer/investment banker/marketing and PR specialist who spearheaded Atlanta's successful bid for the 1996 Olympic Games. He's a slick, forward-thinking administrator. (Unlike his counterpart from Salt Lake City who is running for president of the United States, Payne would never commit a public gaffe like insulting another Olympic host city.) To anyone familiar with the Masters, it was evident from Day One of his tenure that Payne was a progressive. He understood that change was inevitable -- indeed, essential -- but was savvy enough to orchestrate a more enlightened membership policy at a pace that would keep the club's aging traditionalists at bay. Rice and Moore reportedly were nominated for membership five years ago.
Payne also has overseen the introduction of corporate hospitality -- decidedly understated -- to the Masters. He pushed for enhanced digital and social media efforts by the tournament. He was a driving force behind the creation of the Asian Amateur Championship, whose winner earns a berth in the Masters field. The club's extraordinary practice facility was built on his watch. The Payne administration has continued to tweak the 80-year-old Augusta National layout in defense of distance technology. Payne has gone so far as to hint that if push came to shove, the Masters wouldn't shy from introducing a uniform Masters competition golf ball. If his willingness to diffuse the all-male membership issue is any indication, Payne isn't bluffing.
Payne is no saint. He can be arrogant and condescending, a prerequisite of any Augusta National chairman. During the annual Masters press conference with the chairman, Payne has exhibited his ability to stonewall with the best of them. But he also makes it a point to meet and greet with the Fourth Estate like a seasoned politician. It's no coincidence that the food service (free, of course) at the cavernous, state-of-the art Masters media center received a major upgrade not long after Payne took control.
Consider, too, the lottery for media to play Augusta National the Monday after the Masters. Before the reign of Payne, the 30 or so scribes who won the lottery (and thus became ineligible to enter again for 7 years), were denied use of the practice range, locker room and dining facilities. Caddies were provided, but it was evident when the round was over that the club couldn't get you off the property fast enough.
These days, Augusta National rolls out the red carpet for lottery winners, who essentially are treated as members for the day. They use the Champions Locker Room and can warm up as long as they like on the practice ground. Breakfast and lunch are served. No one is shooed back down Magnolia Lane.
His media outreach underscores that when Payne become chairman, he was keenly aware that Augusta National and the Masters -- despite all the reverence paid by golf insiders and aficionados -- was suffering from an image problem. Payne was able to fix some problems quickly; the most festering issue, the club's membership policy, took longer.
To his credit, Payne got it done. He's simply too shrewd not to do the right thing, because doing the right thing invariably is good for business.
Dave Seanor is a longtime sports journalist and former editor of Golfweek magazine. He has covered 15 Masters Tournaments.
- Sports & Recreation
- Augusta National
- Billy Payne