How Augusta National almost hosted Olympic golf

·5 min read

The year was 1992, and it was a heady time in the city of Atlanta. The City Too Busy To Hate had just won the right to host the 1996 Olympic Games, and everyone involved with the Olympic bid was dreaming big: new stadiums, new revenue, new sports.

Billy Payne, then the chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, came up with a bold idea: Why not host an Olympic golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club? Two hours east of Atlanta, Augusta National was — and, of course, remains — one of the world’s best-known, and most exclusive, golf clubs.

Once a year, the club opens its doors for the Masters — and, more recently, a tournament for amateur women — but other than that, it stands, silent and inscrutable, behind ivy-covered walls.

"But what if?" Payne wondered. What if the club decided to open its gates to the entire world? What if one of the most famous venues in all of American sports welcomed in players from the entire spectrum of nations?

Augusta National members agreed with the idea. As host nation, the United States would get the right to add sports to the Olympic slate, and so golf could return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904. Payne and then-Augusta National chairman Jackson Stephens hosted an event at the club in October 1992 to whip up momentum for the idea.

"Guests were given trinkets adorned with the familiar Augusta National logo, but featuring the five Olympic rings inside the Augusta flag," Golf Digest wrote at the time, creating what are surely some of the most valuable Augusta collectibles in existence.

Visions of green jackets and IOC members mixing and mingling under the great oak beside Augusta National’s famed white clubhouse swirled … until reality intruded.

Augusta National once nearly hosted an Olympic event. (Photo by Augusta National/MillerBrown/Getty Images)
Augusta National once nearly hosted an Olympic event. (Photo by Augusta National/MillerBrown/Getty Images)

"If golf is on the Olympic program, then maybe Augusta is not the place for it," Anita DeFrantz, president of the United States Olympic Committee Executive Committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee, told the New York Times in 1992. "The competition should happen where the world is truly welcome, before and after the Olympics. With the privilege of hosting the event comes a responsibility."

At the time DeFrantz spoke, Tiger Woods’ first, foundation-shaking Masters victory was still five years in the future. And Augusta National was still 20 years away from admitting its first female members.

"Augusta does not have exclusionary rules," countered Payne at the time. "They meet the competitive requirements of all the governing bodies. … Besides, [the Atlanta Committee] will be running the tournaments. When we open up this prestigious course to both sexes and to all races and religious backgrounds, Black inner-city kids are going to see Blacks, Indians and Asians playing on a course that is so magnificent, so beautiful. They're going to say, 'I don't have to grow up to be 6-foot-10 to play basketball.’ They can play golf."

The question then became one of past versus future. The Atlanta City Council passed a resolution asking the IOC and what was then known as the U.S. Olympic Committee to look elsewhere for a golf host site. City councilman Bill Campbell, a future Atlanta mayor, called Augusta National "profoundly inappropriate, given the historic lack of any Black, Jewish or other minority members."

Others tried to spin that indisputable history as a positive for the future. Then-LPGA commissioner Charles Mechem took the approach that opening closed doors was preferable to going elsewhere. "Our feeling is that the way to advance the cause for equality is precisely to go to places where women haven't been allowed to go before."

The Olympics were fresh off the astounding success of the Dream Team and the arrival of professionals in the Games. But IOC officials were dubious that golf’s biggest names — at that time, players like Fred Couples, Nick Faldo and Davis Love III — would attend, and the players themselves didn’t particularly seem excited by the idea.

So after a hot start, the Augusta National-in-the-Olympics plan bogeyed its way through the back nine. In January 1993, Payne admitted defeat, withdrawing the proposal for golf to join the Olympics in 1996.

Things worked out for him, though. After shepherding the Atlanta Olympics to completion, he not only was invited to join Augusta National, he became its chairman in 2006. While in charge, Payne oversaw multiple significant changes to the club, most notably the admission of female members. The expansion of the Masters’ television contract and the creation of a new Masters-inspired video game also both occurred during Payne’s tenure. The club has since made many more efforts at progressive outreach, a tacit admission that what worked well enough for Augusta in the past doesn’t work so well for the future.

Golf, meanwhile, finally reached Olympic status in 2016 at the Rio Games, where Justin Rose won the first gold medal in more than a century. The sport is already on the slate for the next two Summer Games, where it will be played at Le Golf National in Paris and Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Outstanding venues, both, but Olympic golf at Augusta National would have been something special. 

Billy Payne, seen here in 2015, couldn't quite bring the Olympics to Augusta. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Billy Payne, seen here in 2015, couldn't quite bring the Olympics to Augusta. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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