Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne said Wednesday that he isn't certain if a men-only membership rule is hurting the home of the Masters, but he certainly will not speak about it.
Time and again at his annual news conference, Payne dismissed questions and shoved aside the issue of the club not having women as members, even while trying to push an Augusta National initiative to grow golf interest among youth.
"All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members," Payne said, repeating the statement in the same fashion several times when repeatedly pressed on the matter.
Nine years after a protest by women's groups across the street from Augusta National during the Masters, Payne was not willing to say the issue of women not being allowed membership reflects poorly on the club or the tournament, which begins on Thursday.
"I think there's certainly a difference of opinion on that," Payne said. "I don't think I have formed an opinion on that. But certainly people have different opinions on that subject."
The issue first came to a head in 2003 when Martha Burk, a leader in the National Council of Women's Organizations, conducted a rally across the street from Augusta National, where the first black member was inducted in 1990.
Hootie Johnson, Augusta National's chairman in 2003, had released broadcast sponsors from their commitments when Burk threatened to target them for backing the club's men-only policy as discrimination.
Now the focus is upon IBM chief executive officer Virginia Rometty possibly becoming the club's first woman member. Rometty became IBM's first woman CEO on January 1 and her four predecessors were all given Augusta National membership.
IBM is among the sponsors of the Masters and for nearly 30 years, IBM chief executives have been granted memberships, though not on any certain timetable. And as a private club, there is no legal obligation to have women as members.
When asked directly about Rometty, Payne made it clear questions on the matter were no more welcome than women members.
"We don't talk about our private deliberations," he said. "We especially don't talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question."
Burk, writing in a column on CNN's website on Tuesday, said that the club's status as a place for powerful business leaders, not golf, is the main issue.
"This is not about golf," she wrote. "It is about access to the places where big business is done, deals are made and careers are boosted or broken. Half of Augusta's membership (which reads like a roster of Fortune 500 CEOs) probably doesn't even care about golf, but members do care about power relationships."
Burk also sees trouble for IBM in Payne's silence and even if Rometty decided she did not want to be a member at Augusta National.
"Whether she would accept a membership is completely irrelevant to the question of the appropriateness of the club's all-male policy and IBM's tacit support of it," she said. "If the club remains silent, IBM's problem reverberates louder."
Payne spoke about Augusta National planning initiatives for drawing more young players into golf, but when told that the message seemed mixed when women were not welcome as members, Payne said he would not answer membership-related questions.
Pressed by another journalist on what the man should tell his daughters, Payne replied, "I don't know your daughters", and then when prodded on the men-only club issue could only offer, "I have no advice for you there, sir."
Asked what Payne might say to his own granddaughters about the men-only Augusta National issue, Payne replied, "Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that's a question that deals with membership."
Told that many felt it a "kitchen-table, personal" question, Payne replied, "Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal."