AUGUSTA — All will seem well in the world again Thursday morning.
There will be a ceremonial start with three of golf’s museum pieces — Palmer, Nicklaus and Player. That will be followed by the parade of the sport’s current stars – Woods, McIlroy, Mickelson, et. al. The story will again be the Masters, one of the world’s premier events played at one of its more treasured venues, Augusta National.
The Masters is different because the course is so often a bigger story than the players. The Masters is different because even when a marquee name isn’t sitting on top of the leaderboard, there is Sunday back-nine drama, whether it’s Zach Johnson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, shooting a final-round 69 to win a major, or Kenny Perry melting into a pool of tears, or Rory McIlroy self-immolating and hitting a tee shot to somebody’s back porch.
The Masters, however, also is different because of what occurred Wednesday, on the eve of the tournament.
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne gave his annual State of Our Club address. He had hoped there would be no negative overtones. But as a former University of Georgia end, he should’ve done better job reading the opponent, or at least the foreshadowing.
A Tuesday night storm played havoc with Shangri-La. A mild winter caused most of the club’s azaleas to bloom too early. Mother Nature can’t become a club member, but she can still wreak havoc with the landscaping.
Payne unwittingly set himself up again for criticism of Augusta National’s exclusionary membership policies by referencing “our efforts to grow the game of golf,” and saying, “Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation.” Problem: His own club excludes 51 percent of the population from membership potential.
There already was a roomful of media members ready to pounce. Payne’s opening comments just turned the exercise into tee ball.
“All issues of memberships are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members, and that statement remains accurate and remains my statement,” he said.
Some years, the debate would end there. But the fact the new CEO of major tournament-sponsor IBM is a woman, Virginia “Ginny” Rometty, and previous IBM CEOs have been extended memberships has breathed new life into an issue that every green-jacket-wearing male hoped had gone comatose.
To fully understand how seriously Augusta National members take themselves, consider this: On news conference transcripts, all references to “The Club,” “Chairman” and “Membership” are capitalized. It follows that any suggestions that the club might be off-base about something leave members equally flummoxed and indignant.
Payne, like Hootie Johnson before him, always will deflect membership questions. The entertainment is in how he goes about it every year.
The issue was brought up 10 times.
It was like watching Payne trying to stomp out flames.
Question: Why not elaborate on why Rometty wouldn’t be considered? Answer: “No. 1, we don’t talk about our private deliberations. No. 2, we especially don’t talk about it when a named candidate is part of the question.” (A more obscure candidate, perhaps?)
Question: What would you say to your granddaughters? Answer: “Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that’s a question that deals with membership.”
Follow-up: It’s a kitchen-table personal question. Answer: “Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal.”
Question: What would you tell my daughters? Answer: “I don’t know your daughters.”
There were tense moments during a heated exchange with a British reporter (well, the Brit was heated, not Payne, who kept responding, “Thank you for your question.”).
There was an interesting moment when Payne was asked, “When this comes up again on the eve of the Masters, do you think it reflects negatively on the club or the tournament?” — and the club chairman wasn’t immediately dismissive.
“I think there’s a difference of opinion on that, and I don’t think I’ve formed an opinion on that,” he said.
This is one of the more anticipated Masters in years. As Graeme McDowell said: “I don’t remember a time when the top 20 players in the world were playing this good. My world ranking has kind of slipped a little this year, and I really haven’t done a huge amount wrong.”
Soon, the focus will be back on the tournament. Payne can stand back and watch it unfold.
Then he will have a year to prepare himself for next year’s news conference.
By Jeff Schultz