AUGUSTA, Ga. — Billy Payne was wincing and treading lightly as he made his way from the stage after his annual press conference on Wednesday morning. The chairman of Augusta National mumbled something about a balky back, but it was his pride that had to be hurting.
Payne had opened with an overwrought 11-minute monologue that celebrated the glory of the Masters and highlighted Augusta National's desire to grow the game and make it more inclusive. Speaking in front of two dozen green-jacketed members who had turned out in support, Payne seemed thoroughly pleased with himself. But as soon as the floor was opened for questions, the mood in the room soured.
Payne was repeatedly challenged by reporters about Augusta National's steadfast refusal to open its membership to women, and the inherent contradiction of championing the club as a steward of the game while maintaining its divisive membership practices.
In the most charged exchange, the Guardian's Lawrence Donegan asked: "Mr. Chairman, 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 if they knew that one day they could join this very famous club?"
Payne gave him a Dirty Harry glare and talked over him until moderator Craig Heatley frantically called upon another scribe. If Payne thought he could will away such questions, he was badly mistaken, and he seemed taken aback by the intensity in the room. One veteran newspaperman who has had many dealings with Payne later said, "That was the first time I have ever seen Billy shaken."
While Payne also addressed such topics as the rain-softened course and the decision not extend an invitation to Ernie Els ("We are great fans of Ernie…and we expect him to be back with us shortly and often"), the press conference took on a farcical feeling as he repeatedly obfuscated on the membership issue, parroting versions of his first answer: "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."
This was Hootie Johnson's go-to answer, too, but it's never been good enough for many golf fans (and golf writers).
When the Masters begins tomorrow, the membership issue will recede into the background and the focus will be on a beautiful golf course and this historic championship. That will surely be a relief to Payne. But even he must now understand that Augusta National's all-male membership will always be a cloud that darkens Masters week, for him and his proud club.