Chairman Billy Payne earned mixed reviews for his performance during Wednesday's State of the Masters press conference, which turned surprisingly tense at times and because of the club's stance, wiped out potentially huge news that the members want to play a part in discussions about the state of the game.
Jabbed, prodded and poked repeatedly about a topic that never really goes away, Billy Payne wouldn't budge.
Five consecutive queries were about female members, including how the club can justify being an advocate for the growth of the game while excluding women and what Payne would say to his granddaughters about the fact there are no women in the club.
While the question grew more pointed, Payne remained calm and polite and indicated the matter was closed -- at least for the day -- by saying "Thank you for your question, sir."
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."
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.
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne, having just proudly detailed the club's many attempts to "grow the game" internationally, had painted himself into a corner and there was no escaping. He teed himself up, handed a titanium driver to the critics and social progressives, and was sent flying into the trees.
Six times, by choosing to remain silent on the topic, Payne whiffed.
It wasn’t surprising, really, because Augusta National officials have long tried to sidestep this issue. That’s their prerogative, technically, as a private club — but it’s also relentlessly hypocritical as the host of one of golf’s most storied and prestigious events.
Perhaps the best that can be said of his faux-discretion is that it was not as pathetic as his 2010 denunciation of Tiger Woods's cocktail waitress habit, in which Payne joined the throng of emotionally stunted dullards claiming to feel personally "let down" by someone who plays sport for a living. You could almost feel the relish. Although the word "uppity" mercifully failed to get a run-out, Payne's wholly uncharacteristic eagerness to tip buckets of ordure over a hugely successful star of the game – far from the first to stray from the righteous path – raised the most questionable spectres in a culture where black men are still stereotyped as feckless and sexually incontinent. Having moralised fatuously about how Tiger had not just let all of us down, but "our kids and grandkids", he concluded his homily by suggesting that Woods come to heel and "begin his new life here tomorrow".
But in reality, it wasn't Woods who owed Augusta – it was Augusta who owed Woods.
I really have no idea what she's saying, but it was fun to read!
Payne's refusal to delve into "personal" matters was in stark contrast to his wholesale, and some argued unjustified, excoriation of Tiger Woods in 2010 over the way the golfer had conducted his private life.
Asked by the Guardian if the growth of golf would best be promoted by Augusta opening its doors to a woman, thereby sending a "wonderful message to young girls around the world … that one day they could join this very famous club", Payne said only: "Thank you for your question, sir."
A shame, really.
A shame that a place that brings so much joy to the golf world, that is revered along the far reaches of the globe, that has every right to set its own membership policies, can't be above the nonsense, invite a woman and move on.
Augusta National might be private, but it is not this week. It makes millions from the tournament, sits at the big table when golf's biggest issues are discussed, is viewed almost as a public trust. It now sells a video game, reaping even more millions, with all of Augusta National's portion earmarked for a charitable grow-the-game initiative.
Aren't women part of that?
It doesn’t matter what I think. It doesn’t matter what you think.
When it comes to membership policies at Augusta National Golf Club, it only matters what the current members think. And they aren’t keen on sharing that information.
If there’s one thing we learned during Wednesday’s annual pre-tournament interview session with Masters chairman Billy Payne, it’s that any and all discourse about internal matters at the club will remain internal until the time when – or more likely, if – he decides to publicize them.
However, whether it’s the right thing for a leadership entity concerned about “growing the game” to exclude half the world’s population from membership consideration is another argument altogether. It is a weak limb the club is perched on.
Truly it was something to see and hear, if only for the breathtaking arrogance and lack of self awareness it put on display.