Everyone wondered how a man as savvy as Billy Payne could handle a situation quite so poorly.
Payne, who pulled off nothing shy of a miracle when he convinced the IOC to hold the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta instead of Athens, Greece, had, in recent years, brought a new tone to the chairmanship of Augusta National Golf Club.
After all, this was a job once held by Clifford Roberts, a fierce curmudgeon who once put a wreath around a black man’s neck and “gave” him to an Augusta National member as a birthday gift. And Hootie Johnson, a southern caricature who pronounced the Masters tournament “Mastahs tunamint,” and told the world that Augusta National would not be pressured into anything “at the point of a bayonet.”
Compared to those two, Payne was Nelson Mandela, uniting all under one big green umbrella.
So, his response to questions about the club not having a female member in the spring of 2012 seemed at best inartful, and at worst tactless.
“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,” Payne said at his annual pre-tournament news conference in April.
He wouldn’t be goaded, and he wouldn’t expound. Even questions about his granddaughters earned the same non-answer answers.
The response was jarring and bewildering. Payne was a man so politically deft that he once got former Atlanta Mayor (and now convicted felon) Bill Campbell and former IOC chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch (who enjoyed being called “Your Excellency”) to hold hands during the 1996 Olympics. And he had done wonderful things for the Masters – segmenting areas for juniors to watch golf and get autographs, increasing television and internet coverage, and generally making the tone of the tournament more inviting.
Many assumed that he would either use the opportunity to announce a new female member or make a moral argument about a private club membership’s rights to freely associate with whomever they wish. The fact that he did neither seemed very un-Billy-Payne-like.
Now it all makes sense.
The newest members of America’s most famous private golf club, Stanford University provost and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore, have been under consideration for a long time. The AP reported that Rice’s name was first floated five years ago.
By letting the membership process play out the way it always has – quietly and on the club’s private schedule – Payne successfully moved Augusta National where it needed to be without appearing to cave to outside pressure.
The statement the chairman put out Monday when he called the addition of these women to the membership, “a joyous occasion” sounded more like the Billy Payne who worked his way up from hardscrabble Georgia football from a poor family to one of the most famous men in the southeast.
“We are fortunate to consider many qualified candidates for membership at Augusta National,” Payne said. “Consideration with regard to any candidate is deliberate, held in strict confidence and always takes place over an extended period of time. The process for Condoleezza and Darla was no different.”
This was a far cry from the tone taken 10 years ago, when Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, sent a letter to then-club chairman Hootie Johnson all but demanding the club add a woman or two to the membership.
Johnson responded by writing, “Our membership is single gender just as many other organizations and clubs all across America. These would include junior Leagues, sororities, fraternities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and countless others. And we all have a moral and legal right to organize our clubs the way we wish…There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.”
The New York Times ran more than 50 stories on the controversy – four on the front page above the fold. The L.A. Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution also printed scores of articles and editorials on the club’s male-only membership.
Still, Burk’s efforts fell flat. Her protest held at a field off Washington Road in Augusta during the 2002 Masters attracted no more than 80 people, including a clown on stilts, a Ku Klux Klansman, and an Atlanta radio DJ carrying a sign that read, “Make me a sandwich.”
Now, the club has finally done the right thing, and done it on its terms.
Once more Billy Payne looks like a grand master of political jujitsu. Augusta National has female members, but no one can legitimately claim that the move was made “at the point of a bayonet.”
“This is a significant and positive time in our Club’s history,” Payne said in a statement. “On behalf of our membership I wanted to take this opportunity to welcome them and all of our new members into the Augusta National family.”