Augusta boss ducks membership issue at Masters

Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club Billy Payne responds to a question during a news conference before the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, April 4, 2012, in Augusta, Ga. AP Photo/Matt Slocum

(CBS/AP) AUGUSTA, Ga. - Even at the point of a bayonet, Billy Payne wouldn't budge.

Jabbed, prodded and poked repeatedly at his annual news conference about whether a woman would become a member at the home of the Masters, the Augusta National chairman wouldn't offer a thing. It was a topical issue again Wednesday because one of the club's longtime sponsors, IBM, has a new female CEO — Virginia Rometty. The last four CEOs at IBM, all male, have been members.

Payne's responses were in direct contrast to his predecessor, Hootie Johnson, who when faced with the issue 10 years ago, famously declared female membership would come on the club's timetable and "not at the point of a bayonet."

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"As has been the case whenever that question is asked, all issues of membership have been and are subject to private deliberations of the members," Payne said. "That statement remains accurate and that remains my statement."

In this Feb. 16, 2006 file photo, Virginia Rometty, at the time an IBM senior vice president, speaks in New York.
AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh, File

Asked to expand on his refusal to comment, he gave two reasons: "Number One, we don't talk about our private deliberations. Number Two, we especially don't talk about them when a named candidate is part of the question."

He did not say whether Rometty was that specific "named candidate."

Four more reporters came at the question from different angles — What would you tell your granddaughters? How does this help grow the sport? — to get Payne to expand on the topic and he politely swatted them away, preferring to talk about the weather, developments of the club's digital platforms and other issues surrounding the tournament that starts Thursday.

Asked whether it takes away from the tournament when the issue of female membership surfaces in the lead-up, Payne also offered very little.

"There's certainly a difference of opinion on that," he said. "I don't think I've formed an opinion on that. But certainly people have different opinions on that subject."

The issue first came up 10 years ago, when Martha Burk, then the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, campaigned for Augusta National to end its all-male membership and threatened to boycott companies whose executives belonged to the club. Johnson responded by cutting loose corporate backers and the Masters was televised without commercials for the next two years. A planned protest before the 2003 Masters was a dud and the issue slowly receded.

Today, in addition to IBM, Exxon Mobile and AT&T are also sponsors of the Masters.

When Payne replaced Johnson as chairman of the club and of the Masters tournament in 2006, he said there was "no specific timetable" for admitting women. The question was raised at the 2007 and 2010 Masters. Both times, Payne said membership issues were private.

Last week, CBSports.com senior golf columnist Steve Elling said Rometty provides Augusta National the perfect opportunity to end its policy for good. He predicted that Payne might offer Rometty a membership -- a few days after the Masters ends.

"She shows up at the tournament in 2013 in green, after the gender issue has died down," Elling wrote. "That way, the club avoids the appearance that Payne has been backed into a corner or forced into making an accommodation."

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