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April 16, 2012
After another round of criticism, Augusta National has a dilemma: Can the club follow the wishes of its founders by taking the lead in providing a service to the game, yet still exclude women?
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April 16, 2012

Times Change

After another round of criticism, Augusta National has a dilemma: Can the club follow the wishes of its founders by taking the lead in providing a service to the game, yet still exclude women?

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Billy Payne doesn't really run Augusta National. Yes, he was at the center of the closing ceremonies in the last light of Easter Sunday, where the Georgia grad and Augusta chairman oversaw the coronation of the Georgia grad and Masters winner. That Bulldog-to-Bulldog thing was a first, one of many last week. But the deeper truth is that Augusta National is run from the Great Beyond.

The club and its celebrated spring invitational are run by Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones Jr., who died in 1971, and Clifford Roberts, who died six years later. Roberts's formal club title is Chairman in Memoriam. Jones is its President in Perpetuity. There are odder-sounding titles in Augusta. You could, for example, be the Worshipful Master at the Masonic Lodge, on Wrightsboro Road. Still. As for Billy Payne—a glad-handing pol but a visionary too—he's like a Constitutional scholar forever trying to interpret the intent of the Framers.

Payne, who is 64, sees expanding the game as a central part of his Jones-Roberts mandate. He is a golfing missionary determined to spread golf into vast new territories—China!—through video games, TV coverage and amateur events. But last week the chattering class suddenly turned its gaze to what the chairman does within the confines of his own club.

Payne inherited a unique course, manly in its bones but feminine in its curves, plus a tournament that is at once genteel and dog-eat-dog. Last week's event was particularly fascinating. He also inherited a male-only membership practice that was dissed last week by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, among other rabble-rousers. Will this still be an issue a year from now? Payne is surely mulling it over. WWBD? How about Cliff?

In the early 1970s, when Roberts was weighing the possibility of a black golfer being invited to the Masters, he polled former winners to see how they felt about it (yep, 20-plus years after Jackie). On the single-sex question you wonder now if Payne will consult his fellow members, including Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, the Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann and Louis Gerstner, the former IBM chairman.

The tournament and the club are both hidebound and ever changing. This 76th Masters was the first since 1949 without Furman Bisher, a legend of Southern sportswriting who died in March at age 93 (page G28). It was the first time a 2 was recorded on number 2, when King Louis holed out from 253 yards. It was the first Masters in which Joe LaCava caddied for Tiger Woods, Steve Williams caddied for Adam Scott and Qass Singh caddied for his father, 49-year-old Vijay. It was the first time since 2003 that as many as three amateurs made the cut. (Jones, watching from his special chair high above the clubhouse, looked pleased.) It was the first time Woods made an unsolicited semiapology for a couple of hissy fits, even though there was nothing really to apologize for. The man's wound tight. Jones was the exact same way.

Jones, though, did not live in an era of oppressive political correctness. Billy Payne does, and an extraordinary week of golf was diminished by an issue out of a time capsule. You may be asking, "Is this really a conversation in 2012?" Of course, you could be posing an entirely different question: "Who cares?" That was Rush Limbaugh's drumbeat on the airwaves last week.

There are thousands of clubs and organizations—including Pine Valley and the Boy Scouts and the Cosmopolitan Club of New York—that say, "We choose to be single sex." But Augusta National cannot afford to be so truthful. Its 51 private weeks and one public week are inextricably linked. The club's reputation, and the social and corporate status of its membership, is enhanced by Jack's six green jackets, Tiger's four, Phil's three, Bubba's first and all those beauty shots on CBS. Augusta National exists for the pleasure of the membership, but the Masters was founded, according to the club's website, "to provide a service to the game."

Few phrases in modern life are more tedious than "the role of the media," but the fact is the role of the media has everything to do with why the club's membership practices are in the national conversation right now. In January, Ginni Rometty became CEO of IBM, which is a longtime sponsor of the Masters. The four men who were IBM chiefs before Rometty have all been Augusta National members (in chronological order: John Opel, John Akers, Gerstner and Samuel Palmisano). Reporters started asking, "Where's Ginni's green coat? And if not Ms. Rometty, what about other women?"

All sorts of suggestions were being offered last week in that regard. Try out this sparkly foursome of potential candidates, just for size: Condoleezza Rice, Annika Sorenstam, Sandra Day O'Connor and Carol Semple Thompson, the Hall of Fame amateur whose father was an Augusta National member. If you drew any of them in the member-member, wouldn't you be thrilled?

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