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At Augusta, change happens when the club is good and ready

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One of the many misconceptions about Augusta National Golf Club is that it resists change. In fact, it is a constantly-evolving place always in search of new ways to enhance the Masters experience for players, patrons and the media. It's just that everything Augusta National does happens at a time, place and manner of its own choosing.

That message was articulated with crystal clarity Wednesday when club chairman Billy Payne, in his annual meeting with the media, was asked nine questions about the Augusta National tradition of not inviting women to be members. And nine times Payne politely but firmly replied with a variation of the same answer.

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Photo by Getty Images

"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."

The all-male membership matter was raised aggressively at the chairman's news conference for the first time since 2003, when the Masters was played without sponsors in order to spare them a sticky situation because of the protest organized by Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations.

And the reason it came up this year is because of another apparent Augusta National tradition: Inviting the CEO of its sponsors to be a member. Last October, IBM named Virginia Rometty its chief executive officer, raising the question of whether she would be asked what size green jacket she would like as well.

What we don't know is whether or not Rometty has been offered membership -- and we likely will never know the answer to that question until some eagle-eyed journalist spots her wearing a club jacket on the Augusta National grounds.

Related: Is the Masters really a tradition unlike any other?

What we do know is this: Club officials would never do anything to take attention away from the golf tournament. There was never going to be a female-in-green sighting this week. This week is all about the Masters.

Secondly, there will never be an announcement that the membership has changed. That would not only violate the club policy of not talking about internal matters, it would also be an admission of sorts that letting in a woman is a big deal, which would sort of be an admission that the previous policy was flawed. That ain't happening.

Back in 2002, then-chairman Hootie Johnson responded to Burk's letter of concern about the all-male membership by saying the club will never change a tradition "at the point of a bayonet."

That bayonet has evolved into a changing world. The CEOs of major corporations used to be a boy's club and that is simply no longer true. Women are running more and more corporations now. The way the world is changing outside the gates of Augusta National makes it very likely that the female member question is no longer framed with an "if" but rather a "when."

Here is one way change could come to Augusta National. As always, the club will close in mid-May and when it reopens in October with a members-only shindig, word will leak out that a woman was spotted wearing a green jacket. When the club is asked to confirm the sighting, the response will be:

"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."

Related: Little-known facts about the Masters

The third question directed to Payne Wednesday was about the all-male membership and it was swatted away deftly by the chairman. After two more questions, the matter was raised again and Payne refused to budge.

Then, four questions later, things got testy. Five consecutive queries were about female members, including how the club can justify being an advocate for the growth of the game while excluding women and what Payne would say to his granddaughters about the fact there are no women in the club.

While the question grew more pointed, Payne remained calm and polite and indicated the matter was closed -- at least for the day -- by saying "Thank you for your question, sir."

Still, after five more questions, there were two more about the membership issue before Craig Heatley, chair of the club's media committee, ended things by saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much."

And so it goes at Augusta National. The Masters is, quite simply, the best-run sporting event on the planet. The tradeoff is that the rules are the rules. Change here happens, but it always originates from within. And when change happens here, Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters end up being better entities.

-- Ron Sirak


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July 28, 2014

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