Eubanks: Payne Shows Deft Political Skill

By Steve Eubanks
Published on

Now it all makes sense.

At his annual "state of the tournament" address this past April, Billy Payne was asked repeatedly why Augusta National didn’t have any female members. To the surprise of almost everyone who saw it, Payne’s response was, at best, inartful and at worst, political malpractice.

"All issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members, and that statement remains accurate and remains my statement," Payne said.

This was very un-Billy-Payne-like. After all, this was a man who pulled off one of the greatest upsets of all time in getting the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga., instead of the birthplace of the Olympics, Athens, Greece.

In doing so, he pulled the most disparate and divergent groups together in a way no one could have imagined. And he reengineered the Olympic Games in a way that made economic sense for a city. The Olympic stadium, long considered a symbol of waste in cities like Toronto, Munich and Seoul, was converted into what is now Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves. The Olympic Village became dormitories for Georgia Tech and Georgia State University. And Centennial Olympic Park became a focal point of urban revitalization in downtown.

Payne even got the IOC to agree to have golf in the Games, and he convinced Augusta National – a club he did not belong to at the time – to open in the summer as the venue. Jesse Jackson squelched the idea by claiming that Augusta’s optics did not project a diverse enough image for such an international event. But the seed that will bear fruit in 2016 in Rio was planted by Billy Payne in Atlanta in 1996.

He had also turned Augusta National in a kinder and gentler place in his short tenure as club chairman. Kids were made to feel welcome. Coverage was more robust. And everyone from the sandwich vendors to the security guards seemed friendlier and more eager to help.

All of this added to people’s dismay over Payne’s obfuscation.

We should have known that he was five steps ahead of everyone all along.

By waiting until the end of the major championship season to announce the addition of Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore to the Augusta National membership rolls, Payne moved the club where it needed to go without appearing to succumb to outside influence or undue pressure.

This was important. Augusta National’s last brush with women’s membership didn’t end well for either side.

As everyone involved in the game remembers, in 2002 Martha Burk, head of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, sent a letter to then-chairman Hootie Johnson that obliquely threatened the club if it did not become more "enlightened" and offer a green jacket to a woman or two.

Johnson's response was one for the ages:

"Our membership is single gender just as many other organizations and clubs all across America," Johnson wrote in a letter that was made public. "These would include junior Leagues, sororities, fraternities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and countless others. And we all have a moral and legal right to organize our clubs the way we wish…There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet."

The L.A. Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the New York Times devoted more than 50 stories to Augusta National and its membership with the New York Times giving the subject four front-page spots above the fold. In hindsight the coverage was overkill. Even former Times editor Howell Raines, who was ousted in some small part because of the paper’s overreach on the Augusta issue, admitted that they might have taken things a bit too far.

Martha Burk must have felt the same way. While Mike Weir was winning his first Masters, Burk led a protest in a nearby field that attracted no more than 80 people including a clown on stilts and a Ku Klux Klansman.

Ten years later, the issue resurfaced when IBM named Virginia Rometty as the new company president and CEO. Previous IBM presidents were Augusta National members, so members of the press – with the New York Times leading the charge again – wanted to know why Rometty was not afforded the same accommodation.

That was when Payne gave his head-scratching answer, repeating his position of not speaking on membership matters regardless of how the question was asked.

At the time, this seemed nonsensical. Now it seems brilliant.

"We are fortunate to consider many qualified candidates for membership at Augusta National," Payne said in a statement on Monday. "Consideration with regard to any candidate is deliberate, held in strict confidence and always takes place over an extended period of time. The process for Condoleezza and Darla was no different." 

Like other Augusta National members, Rice and Moore love golf, can hold their own at the card table, and can talk football with the best of them. They are more than token add-ons designed to squelch uncomfortable political questions. They are members who went through the same process as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Lou Holtz and Payne himself.

Still, it is an important move, one Payne was quick to recognize.

"This is a significant and positive time in our club's history," he said. "On behalf of our membership I wanted to take this opportunity to welcome them and all of our new members into the Augusta National family." 

To anyone who still wonders how Billy Payne -- the child of teenagers who grew up poor and became one of the game’s most influential figures -- got where he is: there is your answer. The man is still on top of his game.

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