AUGUSTA, Ga. - Jabbed, prodded and poked repeatedly about a topic that never really goes away, Billy Payne wouldn't budge.
Faced with questions at his annual news conference about when a woman would become a member at the home of the Masters, the Augusta National chairman gave different variations of the same answer: That's our business, not yours.
The topic was on the front burner again Wednesday, the eve of the year's first major, because one of the club's longtime sponsors, IBM, has a new CEO — Virginia Rometty. The last four CEOs at IBM, all male, have been invited to be members.
Payne's polite-but-firm responses were in direct contrast to those of his predecessor, Hootie Johnson. Faced with the issue 10 years ago, Johnson famously declared female membership would come on the club's timetable and “not at the point of a bayonet.”
“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 when the inevitable question was asked for the first time Wednesday. “That statement remains accurate and that remains my statement.”
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.”
The issue first came up in 2002, 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.
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.
Today, in addition to IBM, Exxon Mobile and AT&T are also sponsors of the Masters.
Contacted after Payne's news conference, Burk said she didn't pay attention to it and had no plans to protest this year because “we saw that didn't work.”
It's not her job to pressure the club, she said, but rather, IBM's.
“If they're willing to diminish the company's image, and to discredit in a certain way their new CEO, that's a loud and clear statement,” Burk said. “I would regret to see that very much. I think it's astounding that one of the largest corporations in the world is having their strings pulled by a bunch of old guys in Augusta.”
Rometty, who took over as CEO on Jan. 1, is said to play golf sparingly. She is more passionate about scuba diving.
IBM spokesman Ed Barbini said the company had no comment.
Because the secrecy level at Augusta National is so high, there could already be a female member that nobody knows about. Though members are visible during the Masters because of their iconic green jackets, not every member is in attendance this week.
Several reporters, trying to get a clearer picture of what goes on inside these gates, came at the question from different angles. Each time Payne graciously 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.
Among the more awkward exchanges came when two reporters teamed up and accused Payne of sending a mixed message. Payne repeatedly talked about the club's efforts to grow the game, yet the possible absence of a female member creates the perception that half the population is excluded.
“That is a membership issue that I'm not going to ... thank you for your,” he said, being interrupted with another question along the same lines. Payne then interrupted that reporter: “Thank you for your question, sir.”
Another reporter, taking a page from the interviews with Johnson from 2003, tried to frame it not as a membership issue, but as a kitchen-table topic: What would you tell your granddaughters?
“Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are personal,” Payne said.
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.”
Rejected time and again, the reporters then moved to a safer topic: The weather.
Payne talked about the 1.4 inches of rain that came overnight, toppling trees and washing out bunkers. But he reassured people that the course would be fine by tee time Thursday morning, when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit their ceremonial tee shots.