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Published: Wednesday, 4/4/2012

Still mum on membership issues

Augusta National in no hurry to let females be a part of its private club

Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, continued with the policy of not talking about membership to the media on Wednesday Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, continued with the policy of not talking about membership to the media on Wednesday

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Augusta National is a private club that owns and operates a very public golf tournament.

It means that one week out of 52 the National opens its windows to the world and the world, in turn, feels it has the right to make the club's business its business.

So it has been for a number of years now as this old boys' club deals, or refuses to deal, at least publicly, with the subject of female membership.

To summarize, there are no women on the rolls here. There appears to be no hurry to change that. It has been a contentious issue for the best part of a decade during the annual Masters tournament press conference featuring the club's chairman.

It got pretty ugly in 2003, the year of Martha Burke and her comically ineffective women's rights protest a short distance up Washington Road.

Hootie Johnson, then the Augusta National chairman, got tired of incessant questioning and finally wagged an angry finger in the direction of a dogged reporter and said, "Stop lecturing me."

In late 1990, just months after a racial firestorm raged at all-white Shoal Creek Country Club in Alabama during the PGA Championship, Augusta quickly invited its first minority member, Ron Townsend, and reportedly has since added several more.

The club has yet to bend, though, on the issue of a female member. There has been considerable speculation lately since Virginia Rometty became the first female CEO of IBM, which is a longtime corporate sponsor of the Masters. Coincidentally, Rometty's four most recent predecessors at IBM all were invited to join Augusta National.

So, of course, Wednesday's visit by club chairman Billy Payne to the media center was a standing-room-only affair. During his opening comments, Payne joined "the growing chorus" of those concerned with the absence of growth in the game.

"Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation," he said. "Whether we lead occasionally or follow always, it doesn't matter. It only matters that we try."

But don't ask about a female member. When the questions began, Payne gave the stock answer -- it's a private membership issue and is not discussed.

He gave that answer four times.

The fifth time he said, "Thank you for your question, sir."

He was asked how he might explain to his granddaughters how and why he leads a club that excludes female membership.

"My conversations with my granddaughters are personal," Payne said.

In that event, a writer asked, "What would you suggest I tell my daughters?"

Payne said: "I don't know your daughters."

Whether he ever will is yet to be determined.

In all fairness to Payne, who as a businessman, an Olympics organizer, and a club chairman has long been considered an innovative leader, the no-comment policy has been in place here since Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts founded both the club and America's most anticipated and enjoyed golf tournament.

They never forgot, as sometimes we do, at least during that one accessible week a year, that it is a private and extraordinarily exclusive club.

A woman, perhaps Virginia Rometty, perhaps not, will someday be asked to join Augusta National. It will happen before Dave Hackenberg is invited, which I must admit is of a slightly greater concern to yours truly.

Of course, I might be inclined to pull a Groucho Marx on the green jackets. He once told the Frairs Club, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

Perhaps the National's first female invitee will rather not belong to a club that made her such an afterthought.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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