Jabbed, prodded and poked repeatedly about a topic that never really goes away, Billy Payne wouldn’t budge.
Faced with questions at his annual news conference about when a woman would become a member at the home of the Masters, the Augusta National Golf Club chairman kept giving different variations on the same answer: That’s our business, not yours.
It was a topical issue again on Wednesday, on the eve of the year’s first major, because one of the club’s long-time sponsors, IBM, has a new female CEO – Virginia Rometty. The last four CEOs at IBM, all male, have been invited to be members.
Payne’s polite-but-firm responses were in direct contrast to those of his predecessor, Hootie Johnson. When faced with the issue 10 years ago, Johnson famously declared female membership would come on the club’s timetable and “not at the point of a bayonet”.
“As has been the case whenever that question is asked, all issues of membership have been and are subject to private deliberations of the members,” Payne said when the inevitable question was asked for the first time on Wednesday.
“That statement remains accurate and that remains my statement.”
Asked to expand on his refusal to comment, he gave two reasons: “Number one, we don’t talk about our private deliberations. Number two, we especially don’t talk about them when a named candidate is part of the question.”
The issue first came up in 2002, when Martha Burk, then the chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, campaigned for Augusta National to end its all-male membership and threatened to boycott companies whose executives belonged to the club.
Johnson responded by cutting loose corporate backers and the Masters was televised without commercials for the next two years. A planned protest before the 2003 Masters was a dud and the issue receded.
Because the secrecy level at Augusta National is so high, there could already be a female member that nobody knows about. Though members are visible during the Masters because of their iconic green jackets, not every member is in attendance this week.
Several reporters, trying to get a clearer picture of what goes on inside these gates, came at the question from different angles. Each time Payne graciously swatted them away.
Among the more awkward exchanges came when two reporters teamed up and accused Payne of sending a mixed message.
Payne repeatedly talked about the club’s efforts to grow the game, yet the possible absence of a female member creates the perception that half the population is excluded.
“That is a membership issue that I’m not going to … thank you for your,” he said, being interrupted with another question along the same lines. Payne then interrupted that reporter: “Thank you for your question, sir.”
Another reporter, taking a page from the interviews with Johnson from 2003, tried to frame it not as a membership issue, but as a kitchen-table topic: What would you tell your granddaughters?
“Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are personal,” Payne said.
Buford Balony says: Why can’t there be a men’s only anything these days? It’s a joke. I tried to get into a women’s only gym the other day (as part of my research only) and I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the joint. Women are more SEXIST than men.