AUGUSTA, Ga. — Once again, the membership at the host club of The Masters is back in the spotlight.
During the annual press conference with Augusta National Golf Club chairman, Billy Payne, the subject of its male-only membership was not only broached, but called into question. In a session with the assembled media which lasted just over 30 minutes, Payne was repeatedly bombarded with questions about why Augusta National not only has yet to admit a female member, but its refusal to answer why.
Payne — as has been the case in previous statements on the matter — tried to sidestep the issue, saying that the club does not discuss its membership policies in public.
“Well, as has been the case whenever that question is asked, 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.
This time the absence of female members in Green Jackets at Augusta National isn’t because of protests outside the gates or public cries for change.
It stems from a Bloomberg report one week ago, which brought up the quandary that Augusta National will likely face. Historically, the club has always extended a membership to the CEO of IBM. But with the company naming a new CEO last fall in Ginni Rometty, Augusta National will either have to admit its first female member or not invite the CEO of IBM for the first time.
When pressed on the issue further, Payne elaborated slightly.
“One, we don’t talk about our private deliberations,” Payne said. “No. 2, we especially don’t talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question.”
While Rometty was clearly the vehicle for the continuing line of questioning Wednesday morning, questions of a lack of a female member persisted.
Earlier in his press conference, Payne referenced the notion that Augusta National and The Masters should be a way to grow the game of golf in the United States. In the final statements of his opening remarks about the state of the club and the tournament, Payne made it clear about the intent to help the game blossom.
“I cannot close my remarks today without joining the growing chorus of golf organizations expressing their concerns about the absence of growth in golf and especially among the younger demographic,” he stated. “We are trying to do our part, as has been evidenced by the significant annual contributions we make to many domestic and international golf organizations.”
Payne was then pressed on how he would explain his club’s policy on women to his granddaughters.
“Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal,” he said.
This all following a tense back-and-forth between two reporters who continued to hammer at Payne on the issue, where he cut them off stating the club’s policy and then saying, “Thank you.”
Nine years ago, the start of The Masters was clouded somewhat by the protests of Martha Burk outside the club’s gates. Is this once again going to overshadow the beginning of the first major championship of the golf season or reflect negatively on the club? Despite the contentious atmosphere of his press conference Wednesday, Payne doesn’t think so.
“I think there’s certainly a difference of opinion on that and I don’t think I have formed an opinion on that,” he said. “But certainly there’s people (who) have different opinions on that subject.”
Contributor Brendan Prunty is the golf writer for the Newark Star-Ledger in New Jersey. He can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed at Twitter.com/BrendanPrunty. This is his second Masters tournament.