Golf

Excluding women hurts Masters' rep

Watch as Billy Payne addresses the issue of female members at Augusta National.
Watch as Billy Payne addresses the issue of female members at Augusta National.
GolfWeek Jeff Rude
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AUGUSTA, Ga.

Masters chairman Billy Payne’s annual news conference Wednesday prompted two primary observations:

• An awkward, uncomfortable feeling permeated the room during the 10 times he fielded — and stonewalled — questions relating to the Augusta National Golf Club’s lack of female members.

• There was a striking disconnect between that exclusionary issue and Payne’s speaking at length about the club’s progressive mission to grow golf.

The contradictory message seemed to be: Grow the game but remain the same.

The lack of female membership is a hot topic again because Virginia Rometty is the new chief executive officer of IBM, and at least four past CEOs of that company have been Augusta members. Payne repeatedly deflected inquiries Wednesday by saying the club doesn’t talk about its “private deliberations” and membership issues.

On one hand, Augusta National is a private club and legally can admit whomever it wants. On the other, it is an influential international golf leader that is intent on spreading golf to all corners and prides itself on being evolved.

Law and philosophy butt heads here.

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You might say the all-male membership runs counterintuitive to its goal and represents a grass ceiling for women.

The club stages a tournament, the Masters, that makes millions of dollars off the public, women and men alike. This week, the tournament will be televised in 200 countries — in effect, as Payne said, “promoting the great game of golf to hundreds of millions of fans.”

Frankly, I’m surprised the National isn’t out front in a bid to foster inclusion of women and serve as a shining symbol. That feeling merely grew when Payne, the chairman of six years, talked enthusiastically for several minutes about ramping up golf, about “our obsession to do better every year.”

Here are some interesting snippets from his address:

• “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.”

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• “We do our best to meet and hopefully surpass the expectations of all of our constituents. Just being good is not good enough.”

• “(We are) determining what more we can do, what ideas might potentially attract kids and other groups of potential golfers to the game.”

You read all that and wonder why Augusta National doesn’t already have a dozen female members. You wonder if there isn’t already a movement afoot, with IBM’s Rometty or whomever. You figure that a female member here seems inevitable.

Payne hardly sounded like someone who runs an all-male club. That is, until he faced questions regarding female membership. Then, his whole countenance changed. He appeared tight-lipped and tense at times. He glared some, saying at one point, “Thank you for your question, sir.”

Payne had numerous chances to expound on the value of female inclusion, but he passed, sticking to a rote answer. Now he has a chance to read those wise pearls in his interview transcript and act accordingly, matching actions with words.

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