Billy Payne had no answer for reporters last week asking about why Augusta does not have female members. In a pretournament press conference he said he would not discuss the club's membership practices. A handful of times. The persistence of the questions seemed to take him off his game. He dropped his regular kill-'em-with-kindness routine, and he didn't make his customary rounds in the press building when the conference was over. The 30-minute session was strange and uncomfortable and fascinating.
Payne has a shrewd understanding of the power of the press. Bisher was a stout supporter of Payne's effort to bring the Olympics to Atlanta in '96, and without Bisher's support the event may not have happened. Later, Payne had the idea that the Atlanta Games should include golf, for men and women, and that this Olympic golf tournament should be played at Augusta National. For a short while that idea had traction, in part because Bisher liked it and because Jack Stephens, then the Augusta chairman, did too. That was Payne's real introduction to the club. Ten years later he was chairman. You think he might have some political skill? His major at Georgia, where he played football, was political science.
Jones and Roberts were every bit as shrewd. Probably more so. From the start they cultivated relationships with popular golf writers from Great Britain who could put their high-status stamp of approval on the tournament. In the early 1950s, well before Arnold Palmer turned the Masters into must-see TV, influential British writers, including Henry Longhurst, Pat Ward-Thomas and Peter Ryde, had a standing arrangement with the club: Get yourself to New York, and we'll take care of you from there. That meant a private plane to Augusta. A house. A cook. A well-stocked bar. All of it free. This went on for years and years. If that typing trio had mocked Augusta's flying-carpet greens, the very hallmark of the course, the tournament's reputation might be very different today. They did the opposite. Was it a corrupt system? Of course it was. And there are still remnants of it today. The open bar in the press building on Sunday night. The lottery that allows a couple dozen lucky reporters to play the course on the Monday after the Sunday. But you could also say that those niceties are just the club being gracious, and they are. Everyone wants everything in black and white these days, but the truth is, when you really study human interaction, all you see is a big gray blob.
On the course last week, time stopped. The winner, Bubba Watson his own self, was a free swinging Son of the South, with Seve's floppy hair and Tom Watson's recovery game and Ben Crenshaw's simmering emotions. It's life behind the curtains, where Billy doesn't want you to peek. That puts him on edge.
Once the club had no Jews, and then it did, and the club somehow survived. Ditto for its admission of Asians and celebrities and blacks, even if change in that final category came at the point of a bayonet (see: Shoal Creek, 1990). When Augusta National decides to admit women, it will be doing the PGA Tour an enormous favor. Why? Because the PGA Tour has a clause in its bylaws that requires its events to be played at clubs with nondiscriminatory admissions practices. Yet the Masters is, essentially, a Tour event. The money and the points are official. The win is official. It counts toward a player's pension. The only thing that makes it unofficial is an asterisk the Tour puts on the schedule, classifying the Masters as a nonsanctioned event.
You've heard parts of this story before, told a decade ago with unappealing stridency by Martha Burk, representing the women, and Hootie Johnson, representing the club. Their standoff would have been comical had it not been so pathetic and tedious.
It's not going to be easy for Payne to do what Hootie, his predecessor and benefactor and former real-world boss, was unwilling to do. Hootie knew well the President in Perpetuity and the Chairman in Memoriam. And even he had to do some serious mind-reading. Billy Payne, who met Jones but never Roberts, has to do even more. Maybe he's thinking now about a particularly telling Roberts statement, one that lives on in perpetuity: "We do not change Augusta National. We improve it."