Much more than a club, Augusta National needs women for good of the game

April 4, 2012

On Wednesday, Billy Payne will give his annual Masters week press conference, a state of the union for the world's most famous tournament and celebrated golf club, which are inextricably linked.

If form holds, the Augusta National chairman will brag about his club's annual multi-million dollar charitable contributions, including to the First Tee, of which the Masters is a founding partner. Payne may discuss his feelings about the World Ranking and FedEx Cup, which are key qualifying criteria for the Masters and which Payne influences, directly and indirectly. (The green jackets have a seat on the governing board of the World Ranking.) Payne will surely discuss the Asian Amateur Championship, a pet project that is largely run by the club members who oversee the Masters. Perhaps he will tip his cap to the hundreds of thousands of fans who pay to attend the Masters every year and then spend millions of dollars on overpriced polo shirts and other mementos.

The feeling at Payne's annual gathering is one of back-slapping bonhomie, but, like everything about the Masters, it is an artificial reality. There is a darker undercurrent to the club's current affairs that habitually goes unaddressed. It's unlikely that Payne will thank Tim Finchem for continuing to recognize the Masters as an official PGA Tour win and the players' earnings on the seasonal and career money lists, even though the Tour has a mandate that its tournaments be conducted at clubs with non-discriminatory membership practices. And while Payne has a deep devotion to the Masters' corporate partners — IBM, ExxonMobil and AT&T — it's doubtful he'll want to linger much on this topic, because once again Augusta National's all-male membership has put the club and corporate America in an awkward position.

This is the first Masters since Virginia Rometty was elevated to CEO of IBM. The last four men to hold that title were made members of Augusta National. Becoming a member of the club is not really about golf; Augusta National is a gathering spot for the ruling class, as much a status marker as Skull and Bones. The club's insistence on keeping its membership estrogen-free puts Rometty in the strange position of having to explain to her female co-workers and shareholders why they are supporting a club that excludes them.

The debate about Augusta National's membership practices is often framed in simplistic screeds. This is not about breaking up the Boy Scouts or infiltrating anybody's sewing circles, to use a favorite example from Payne's predecessor, Hootie Johnson. Of course men and women have the right to gather amongst themselves. There are a couple dozen all-male golf clubs in the U.S.; keeping women out of them is retrograde and a bit silly, but it's not a battle worth fighting because these clubs truly are private refuges for the enjoyment of their members. Augusta National is a completely different case because it holds such a public place in an international sport.

The World Ranking affects the career of every pro golfer, and any tweaks to the formula can have a profound effect on a player's fortunes. Augusta National helps make these decisions. The First Tee impacts the lives of millions of kids, and Augusta National's Jim Armstrong sets policy on their experience as a member of the The First Tee's board of directors. Payne knows better than anyone else that the chairman of Augusta National is, by definition, one of the most powerful people in golf, essentially a third-party commissioner of the sport. Years ago Hootie floated the idea of a throttled back "Masters ball," a way to rein in distance gains since the USGA and the R&A seem incapable of doing the job. Such an experiment could be unilaterally instituted by the Masters and have a massive impact on the sport as well as the multi-billion dollar equipment industry. Given the many ways Augusta National members are shaping golf, at the professional and grassroots level, shouldn't women have a voice, too? This can only happen if they are invited into the club.

Hootie Johnson, 80, is from another era; his mother was in the first generation of American women who attained suffrage. That he felt so threatened by the likes of Martha Burk is not really a surprise. Payne, 64 , has always positioned himself as a progressive and an agent of change. From televising the Par-3 Contest to founding the Asian Amateur, he often says his motivation is growing the game. Well, golf as a leisure sport is hurting in this country. The biggest underserved market is women and girls, as currently less than 25 percent of American golfers are female. Yet the message Payne and the fellow green jackets are sending to them is this: You're not welcome here.

In 2010, Payne used the bully pulpit of the chairman's press conference to lecture Tiger Woods about doing the right thing. It would be good for the club, and the game, if he would follow his own advice.