Women membership issue won't disappear at Augusta National

"That deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it."

That was the all too familiar answer Augusta National chairman Billy Payne gave whenever the subject of female membership at the club was raised in Wednesday's State of the Masters news conference.

It's almost impossible to wrap your head around the fact that in 2012, Augusta National, maybe the most famous golf club in the United States, still has no female members.

It came to a head rather famously in 2003 when Martha Burk protested the lack of female membership. Augusta National, and more specifically, then chairman Hootie Johnson, responded aggressively and, in an effort to quell any potential boycott issues, had the tournament broadcast without advertisers.

Burk's efforts fizzled, in some part because she, personally, failed to resonate with people. Some disagreed with her stance and felt that Augusta National was within its rights to have an all-male club.

Johnson equated the club's position with groups like the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts and said, "we all have a moral and legal right to organize our clubs the way we wish."

Fast-forward almost 10 years and the issue reared its head again.

The impetus for this controversy's re-emergence has to do with a woman named Virginia Rometty.

Mrs. Rometty was named president and CEO of IBM in January of 2012. IBM is one of the corporate sponsors for the Masters. The last four IBM CEOs, all males, have been invited to become members of Augusta National.

Rometty was not.

Payne was asked very specifically about it Wednesday afternoon.

Q: "Is it possible to elaborate further on why membership for Mrs. Rometty wouldn't be considered, just to give us a little more spiel on that."

A: Chairman Payne: "I guess two reasons: One, we don't talk about our private deliberations. No. 2, we especially don't talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question."

Augusta National went out of its way to buck precedent, although its precedent to be sexist superceded all.

The plot thickened, starting Wednesday.

Among the several questions peppered at chairman Payne in his presser, one came from Karen Crouse of The New York Times.

She asked, "Mr. Chairman, as a grandfather, what would you say to granddaughters? How would you explain leading a club that does not include female membership?"

Honestly, that's an end-around to asking about female membership, a question Payne clearly wasn't elaborating on, at all. He acknowledged as much in his response.

"Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that's a question that deals with membership, and..."

Crouse responds that, "it's a kitchen-table, personal question."

Payne, not above clever language, retorted, "well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal."

Crouse reported in her Wednesday column, "I was the only woman called on to ask a question, and that was after having my hand up for 20 minutes."

Crouse escalated matters on Thursday when she spoke to Golf.com and said, "If it were left to me, which it seldom is in the power structure of writer versus editor, I'd probably not come cover this event again until there is a woman member. More and more, the lack of a woman member is just a blue elephant in the room."

A reporter becoming the story is a no-no and, according to the AP, New York Times sports editor Joe Sexton said the comments were, "completely inappropriate and she has been spoken to."

To say the issue is inflammatory is an understatement. While people like Burk and Crouse are willing to take stands on the issue, it's simply not making a dent.

Crouse, in a different column than the one mentioned, "nobody would talk on the record." She got three-time Masters champion, and father of two girls, Phil Mickelson to speak to her and here's the excerpt from the Times:

"What I care about," he said, "is a woman like Ginni Rometty, whom I've never met, works her way up at IBM for 30 years and now is the CEO. That's inspirational because decades ago, that probably would not have been the case. And it's an inspiration as a parent to be able to share that with my kids to show them..." His voice trailed off.

In terms of teachable moments for his children, Mickelson added: "Where she does or doesn't play her golf doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that brilliance has been rewarded in the workplace."

So no one really would comment for Crouse, because this speech from the media- savvy Mickelson has nothing to do with the pertinent issue at hand.

Two fairly well-known people went on the record against Augusta National's policy. President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney both came out against the "men-only" policy.

Pretty remarkable to get those to agree on anything just about seven months before the election.

It all doesn't matter. Payne and his boys won't admit a woman anytime soon. Payne is a little more reasonable than his predecessor Johnson, who reportedly once said the club wouldn't be held hostage "at the end of a bayonet."

The fact is that a golf club, specifically one that hosts the most important golf tournament in the world, should not be exclusionary in 2012. Long gone is the era where people are kept out.

Augusta National could be an agent of change. It's under no obligation to be, nor does it have to bow to public pressure, but it should adapt because it's the right thing to do.

The message is despicable: women aren't allowed to be part of a club because they are women? Why aren't women allowed? The answer can't be because they never were and that's our policy.

The policy is wrong.

Rometty, or Condoleeza Rice, or Sandra Day O'Connor, or Oprah, or Annika or Rihanna, whatever woman that might get approached for a membership could eventually turn them down and make Augusta National look worse.

"That deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it."

By not answering it, you are, Mr. Payne, and you and the club you preside over, are wrong.