Can Augusta National follow the wishes of its founders, yet still exclude women?

Augusta National
Al Tielemans/SI
Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen strolled to the 16th green on Sunday.

Billy Payne doesn't really run Augusta National. Yes, he was at the center of the closing ceremonies in the last light of Easter Sunday, where the Georgia grad and Augusta chairman oversaw the coronation of the Georgia grad and Masters winner. That Bulldog-to-Bulldog thing was a first, one of many last week. But the deeper truth is that Augusta National is run from the Great Beyond.

The club and its celebrated spring invitational are run by Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones Jr., who died in 1971, and Clifford Roberts, who died six years later. Roberts's formal club title is Chairman in Memoriam. Jones is its President in Perpetuity. There are odder-sounding titles in Augusta. You could, for example, be the Worshipful Master at the Masonic Lodge, on Wrightsboro Road. Still. As for Billy Payne--a glad-handing pol but a visionary too--he's like a Constitutional scholar forever trying to interpret the intent of the Framers.

Payne, who is 64, sees expanding the game as a central part of his Jones-Roberts mandate. He is a golfing missionary determined to spread golf into vast new territories--China!--through video games, TV coverage and amateur events. But last week the chattering class suddenly turned its gaze to what the chairman does within the confines of his own club.

Payne inherited a unique course, manly in its bones but feminine in its curves, plus a tournament that is at once genteel and dog-eat-dog. Last week's event was particularly fascinating. He also inherited a male-only membership practice that was dissed last week by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, among other rabble-rousers. Will this still be an issue a year from now? Payne is surely mulling it over. WWBD? How about Cliff?

In the early 1970s, when Roberts was weighing the possibility of a black golfer being invited to the Masters, he polled former winners to see how they felt about it (yep, 20-plus years after Jackie). On the single-sex question you wonder now if Payne will consult his fellow members, including Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, the Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann and Louis Gerstner, the former IBM chairman.

The tournament and the club are both hidebound and ever changing. This 76th Masters was the first since 1949 without Furman Bisher, a legend of Southern sportswriting who died in March at age 93 (page G28). It was the first time a 2 was recorded on number 2, when King Louis holed out from 253 yards. It was the first Masters in which Joe LaCava caddied for Tiger Woods, Steve Williams caddied for Adam Scott and Qass Singh caddied for his father, 49-year-old Vijay. It was the first time since 2003 that as many as three amateurs made the cut. (Jones, watching from his special chair high above the clubhouse, looked pleased.) It was the first time Woods made an unsolicited semiapology for a couple of hissy fits, even though there was nothing really to apologize for. The man's wound tight. Jones was the exact same way.

Jones, though, did not live in an era of oppressive political correctness. Billy Payne does, and an extraordinary week of golf was diminished by an issue out of a time capsule. You may be asking, "Is this really a conversation in 2012?" Of course, you could be posing an entirely different question: "Who cares?" That was Rush Limbaugh's drumbeat on the airwaves last week.

There are thousands of clubs and organizations--including Pine Valley and the Boy Scouts and the Cosmopolitan Club of New York--that say, "We choose to be single sex." But Augusta National cannot afford to be so truthful. Its 51 private weeks and one public week are inextricably linked. The club's reputation, and the social and corporate status of its membership, is enhanced by Jack's six green jackets, Tiger's four, Phil's three, Bubba's first and all those beauty shots on CBS. Augusta National exists for the pleasure of the membership, but the Masters was founded, according to the club's website, "to provide a service to the game."

Few phrases in modern life are more tedious than "the role of the media," but the fact is the role of the media has everything to do with why the club's membership practices are in the national conversation right now. In January, Ginni Rometty became CEO of IBM, which is a longtime sponsor of the Masters. The four men who were IBM chiefs before Rometty have all been Augusta National members (in chronological order: John Opel, John Akers, Gerstner and Samuel Palmisano). Reporters started asking, "Where's Ginni's green coat? And if not Ms. Rometty, what about other women?"

All sorts of suggestions were being offered last week in that regard. Try out this sparkly foursome of potential candidates, just for size: Condoleezza Rice, Annika Sorenstam, Sandra Day O'Connor and Carol Semple Thompson, the Hall of Fame amateur whose father was an Augusta National member. If you drew any of them in the member-member, wouldn't you be thrilled?

Billy Payne had no answer for reporters last week asking about why Augusta does not have female members. In a pretournament press conference he said he would not discuss the club's membership practices. A handful of times. The persistence of the questions seemed to take him off his game. He dropped his regular kill-'em-with-kindness routine, and he didn't make his customary rounds in the press building when the conference was over. The 30-minute session was strange and uncomfortable and fascinating.

Payne has a shrewd understanding of the power of the press. Bisher was a stout supporter of Payne's effort to bring the Olympics to Atlanta in '96, and without Bisher's support the event may not have happened. Later, Payne had the idea that the Atlanta Games should include golf, for men and women, and that this Olympic golf tournament should be played at Augusta National. For a short while that idea had traction, in part because Bisher liked it and because Jack Stephens, then the Augusta chairman, did too. That was Payne's real introduction to the club. Ten years later he was chairman. You think he might have some political skill? His major at Georgia, where he played football, was political science.

Jones and Roberts were every bit as shrewd. Probably more so. From the start they cultivated relationships with popular golf writers from Great Britain who could put their high-status stamp of approval on the tournament. In the early 1950s, well before Arnold Palmer turned the Masters into must-see TV, influential British writers, including Henry Longhurst, Pat Ward-Thomas and Peter Ryde, had a standing arrangement with the club: Get yourself to New York, and we'll take care of you from there. That meant a private plane to Augusta. A house. A cook. A well-stocked bar. All of it free. This went on for years and years. If that typing trio had mocked Augusta's flying-carpet greens, the very hallmark of the course, the tournament's reputation might be very different today. They did the opposite. Was it a corrupt system? Of course it was. And there are still remnants of it today. The open bar in the press building on Sunday night. The lottery that allows a couple dozen lucky reporters to play the course on the Monday after the Sunday. But you could also say that those niceties are just the club being gracious, and they are. Everyone wants everything in black and white these days, but the truth is, when you really study human interaction, all you see is a big gray blob.

On the course last week, time stopped. The winner, Bubba Watson his own self, was a free swinging Son of the South, with Seve's floppy hair and Tom Watson's recovery game and Ben Crenshaw's simmering emotions. It's life behind the curtains, where Billy doesn't want you to peek. That puts him on edge.

Once the club had no Jews, and then it did, and the club somehow survived. Ditto for its admission of Asians and celebrities and blacks, even if change in that final category came at the point of a bayonet (see: Shoal Creek, 1990). When Augusta National decides to admit women, it will be doing the PGA Tour an enormous favor. Why? Because the PGA Tour has a clause in its bylaws that requires its events to be played at clubs with nondiscriminatory admissions practices. Yet the Masters is, essentially, a Tour event. The money and the points are official. The win is official. It counts toward a player's pension. The only thing that makes it unofficial is an asterisk the Tour puts on the schedule, classifying the Masters as a nonsanctioned event.

You've heard parts of this story before, told a decade ago with unappealing stridency by Martha Burk, representing the women, and Hootie Johnson, representing the club. Their standoff would have been comical had it not been so pathetic and tedious.

It's not going to be easy for Payne to do what Hootie, his predecessor and benefactor and former real-world boss, was unwilling to do. Hootie knew well the President in Perpetuity and the Chairman in Memoriam. And even he had to do some serious mind-reading. Billy Payne, who met Jones but never Roberts, has to do even more. Maybe he's thinking now about a particularly telling Roberts statement, one that lives on in perpetuity: "We do not change Augusta National. We improve it."

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