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Masters chairman Billy Payne
Masters chairman Billy Payne

Thorny issue of women still creeps into Augusta's landscape Add to ...

AUGUSTA, GA. - If this is eternal damnation, it is green, sparkles like diamonds in the sunlight and is far more muggy than hot.

The religious fanatic, scripture-laden outfit and banner to complement, is screaming as thousands of golf lovers pour out of the parking lot and into the front entrance – surely not the Gates of Hell? – to the 2012 Masters Golf Tournament.

They pay him no heed. Instead, the masses – think of a Grey Power convention – move through the gates and into the welcoming smiles and cheery “Good mornings” of the dozens of staff and volunteers who are entrusted to ensure that this be a day never to be forgotten. That most of the greeters are black may be a bit ironic, but the warmth of the greeting is hardly phony: there is something about this place, something about this time of year, that cheers a world breaking free of salt-stained cars and cold spring drizzle.

This year marks the 80th birthday of Augusta National, quite possibly the most famous sports venue in the world. The British Open might be a more prestigious tournament, but it moves around to various courses. St. Andrew’s might be a more storied course, but it does not mark each year with a significant event. The Masters is found only at Augusta each April, making this course golf’s equivalent to Wimbledon, to Churchill Downs, to Ascot, to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When it opened in 1932, according to the delightful A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, by Jeff Neuman and Globe and Mail colleague Lorne Rubenstein, annual fees were set at $360 and they figured to cut off membership at 1,800. Only 76 joined. Today, membership, should one come open, is by invitation only; it is impossible to apply. If invited, new members would join the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, T. Boone Pickens and a great many others who make up the corporate elite of America.

The course itself is more famous than many of those who have claimed the Masters championship. Augusta is a “spiritual” place, according to three-time champion Phil Mickelson – perhaps the basis for the religious nut’s warnings to those fortunate enough to hold one of the treasured tickets to Wednesday’s casual Par-3 challenge that traditionally precedes Thursday’s opening round.

The Masters is its own character, its own draw. Curiously, the tournament did not originate as such and was known as the Augusta National Invitational. Golfing legend Bobby Jones, who co-designed the course with Alister MacKenzie, thought such a tag – which the press was using – pretentious. Even near his end, he would call his own tournament “the so-called Masters.”

Yet the world does tune in, as club chairman Billy Payne put it Wednesday, to see “our remarkably beautiful golf course.” On the morning following a wicked night storm, downed trees, broken limbs and debris has already been cleaned up and the course looks polished and new. Augusta on a sunny morn is an emerald layout where, as P.G. Wodehouse once wrote, “All of nature shouted Fore!”

It is hardly all natural, of course – the sand so smooth rolling balls leave the imprint of the ball’s dimples, the “rough” the quality of a carpet upgrade in a new home – but it is spectacular. Built on the grounds of the old Fruitland Nurseries, each hole carries the name and presence of a bloom: No. 2 known as Pink Dogwood, No. 5 Magnolia….

Augusta’s history has been both glorious and tempestuous. Gene Sarazen’s double eagle on 15 to force a playoff he won. Gary Player becoming the first foreign-born player to win in 1961. Tiger Woods making his first appearance as a pro in 1997 and promptly setting a course record of 270. Mike Weir, a Canadian, winning left-handed in 2003.

It has “Amen Corner” – a stretch through 11, 12 and 13 – so named by the poetic writer Herbert Warren Wind after Arnold Palmer’s heroics in 1958. It has “patrons” instead of fans, “observation stands” rather than bleachers. The nutrition of choice is iced tea and a pimento cheese sandwich.

But it is not all sweetness and light. Blacks were excluded even following the Civil Rights movement and a tour victory by Charlie Sifford. Lee Elder finally got an invite in the 1970s and, today, African-Americans work at the course, buy tickets at the course and, to a small degree, play the course.

Women, on the other hand, have never broken through, despite attempts and despite protests a decade ago by the National Council of Women’s Organizations that led to the tournament being broadcast without commercials. Much attention has been given to the fact that IBM is one of three major corporate sponsors of the Masters, yet IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, who does golf, has yet to be invited.

To no surprise, this simmering issue eventually reared its head at Billy Payne’s annual meeting with the media – a news conference comparable to one with the President of the United States, with media polite, selected and beginning each question with “Mr. Chairman ...”

Payne opened the door himself when he rued the reality of diminishing participation in the game, particularly among the young, and he said a task force had been established to try to understand what it is that keeps the young away. Is the game too hard? Too long to play? Too expensive? (Double check that last one, Mr. Chairman.)

If he was so concerned, he was asked, then would it not be a good message to send out to young girls around the world that they might one day be able to join this famous club. Augusta membership issues are private, the chairman responded. Not open to discussion.

Finally, toward the end, a woman was able to ask a question. She appealed to the chairman as a grandfather, asking how he could explain such a policy to his granddaughters.

“Well,” Billy Payne answered, “my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal.”

There was to be one final try. “You said your conversations with your granddaughters are private,” a reporter asked. “What would you suggest I tell my daughters?”

“I don’t know your daughters,” the chairman responded with a smile.

“I have no advice for you there, sir.”

The media handler now found his opening. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said quickly, “thank you very much.”

And thank you, Chairman Billy Payne, for ensuring that there is never a dull day at the Masters – not even when the clouds move in with an afternoon downpour.

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