Michaux: Membership questions leave Masters chairman delivering mixed message
The philosophical debate on Augusta National Golf Club's membership policies reached a contentious pitch in the Masters' chairman's annual news conference Wednesday.
Lost in the follow-up discussion of who won or lost the one-sided argument is a simple question: Did the cause of opening doors to female members at the world’s most recognizable club get furthered by the renewed vigor of the debate?
Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne has waged a campaign of progressive growth on behalf of the game since taking the reins from Hootie Johnson in 2006. He spoke eloquently in his opening statement Wednesday of “surpassing the expectations of all of our constituents” and implementing ideas to “attract kids and other groups of potential golfers to the game.”
“Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation,” he said. “Whether we lead occasionally or follow always, it doesn’t matter – it only matters that we try.”
Those words rang a bit hollow when juxtaposed to the club’s long-standing status as an all-male institution. A legacy of progressive growth is hard to foster in the shadow of an exclusionary practice.
We don’t know how close Payne might be to admitting the first female member. Presented with the seemingly golden ticket to follow club protocol and invite the first female CEO of tournament sponsor and business partner IBM during the next batch of new members, Payne might have thought the time was right to tear down that wall.
But Martha Burk and the world learned 10 years ago that forcing the club’s back to the wall “at the point of a bayonet” wasn’t the way to initiate change. The club has the coffers and the will to withstand a conventional campaign waged against it.
Augusta National has every legal right to associate with whomever they choose. Nobody has to respect its choice, but you must respect its right.
However, whether it’s the right thing for a leadership entity concerned about “growing the game” to exclude half the world’s population from membership consideration is another argument altogether. It is a weak limb the club is perched on.
The issue was reignited last week when a Bloomberg report addressed IBM selecting Ginni Rometty as its first female CEO in 100 years and Augusta National’s history of inviting her predecessors to be members.
Asked Wednesday whether he foresaw the all-male membership policy changing, Payne’s answer was a predictable noncomment.
“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.
Asked to elaborate on Rometty specifically, Payne gave two reasons for the club’s silent stance.
“One, we don’t talk about our private deliberations,” he said. “No. 2, we especially don’t talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question.”
Had it ended there, the issue might have faded behind the typical discussions of course conditions and the promise of an epic tournament. But the voracity of the inquiry only grew stronger, and the club’s philosophical legs grew weaker with every dismissive response.
“Mr. Chairman,” an international reporter asked, “I note your concerns about the growth of golf around the world, and I also note that Augusta National is a very famous golf club. Don’t you think it would send a wonderful message to young girls around the world if they knew that one day they could join this very famous golf club?”
When Payne dismissed it as a membership question, the usual staid decorum of the interview room was breached with a volley of rebuttal interruptions.
“Seems like a mixed message, Billy, is what he’s saying,” interjected another reporter. “You’re throwing a lot of money into growing the game, and yet there’s still a perception that certain people are excluded.”
“It sends a wonderful message to girls around the world that they could join this emblematic golf club. It’s not a membership question,” said the first inquisitor.
Payne’s glaring response: “Thank you for your question, sir.”
It didn’t get any easier. A female reporter for The New York Times wondered how Payne can explain leading an all-male club to his granddaughters.
“Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that’s a question that deals with membership,” he said.
The Times reporter countered that it’s a “kitchen-table, personal question.”
“Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal,” Payne said.
Asked whether this latest membership dust-up on the eve of a highly anticipated Masters “reflects negatively on either the club or the tournament,” the chairman hedged.
“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.
Public discussion 10 years ago ended up leaning toward Augusta National’s right to be a private club. But public sentiment is often quick to evolve on matters of social conscious.
Whether the club’s timetable was disrupted by renewed outside pressure remains to be seen. Everyone is eager for the periodic distractions to end, but only Payne and Augusta National can make the decision to erase the perceptions that undermine all of the good will it has built up fostering worldwide growth in the game.