AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For a few hours Wednesday, the most important person at Augusta National was not Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. It wasn’t a pro golfer. It wasn’t even a “he,” which is the reason Ginni Rometty and her status has become important.
They’ll be teeing off this morning in the 76th Masters. The entrants that is. On Wednesday, some of the media teed off on Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National.
Payne on six occasions was asked whether for the first time in its 80-year history Augusta National would extend membership to a woman, and whether that woman might be Rometty.
And each occasion he responded by saying one way or another club’s membership issues “are now and have been” historically private.
Rometty is the new chief executive at IBM, a position that by tradition and income has provided a basis to become one of the 300 individuals who belong to Augusta National, along with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Shultz and other captains of industry and finance.
Her predecessors at IBM were or are Augusta members. Her predecessors were male.
Some find it appalling that in the 21st century, a club which hosts one of America’s biggest sporting events, is restrictive, at least from a standpoint of gender. “Few institutions revel in the reputation of being a dinosaur like Georgia’s Augusta National,” columnist Michael Hiltzik railed in the Los Angeles Times.
But Sally Jenkins, a brilliant columnist for the Washington Post, whose career began at The San Francisco Examiner, argued, “Any discussion of Augusta’s all-male policy has to start with the fact that it’s a private club and has the right to do what it pleases. ... That Rometty might be denied membership, and have to spend her vacations snorkeling in Anguilla instead of playing golf, is not an offense worth being compared to the offensiveness of blackmailed social engineering.”
Payne ran the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He can be persuasive. And evasive. Nine years ago, when Hootie Johnson was Augusta chairman — Payne took over in 2006 — a woman named Martha Burke campaigned to force the club to accept a woman. The campaign failed. This in a way is Martha Burke II, but there’s no campaign, just queries because the media became aware of Rometty’s position, and because it’s Masters week.
How many times can you talk about the speed of the greens?
Women play Augusta National. Women simply, to this point, haven’t belonged to Augusta National. At least as far as can be determined. If and when a lady becomes a member, there would be no more of a public announcement than there is about a lady not becoming a member.
Asked why he wouldn’t elaborate on why Rometty might be considered or might not, Payne had a clear response. “I guess two reasons,” he said. “One, we don’t talk about our private deliberations. No. 2, we especially don’t talk about it when a named candidate is part of the question.”
But the media won’t stop talking.
When a reporter pestered Payne about what the reporter should tell his own daughters, the 68-year-old Payne showed a bit of humor along with his growing displeasure.
“I don’t know your daughters,” Payne told his inquisitor.” I have no advice for you there, sir.”
And he did say, “Sir.”
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.