Payne was the bayonet to drive female members into Augusta National
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Payne was the bayonet to drive female members into Augusta National

billy-payne

A decade ago, then-Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said he and his club would not be forced to admit a female member "at the point of a bayonet."

On Monday, the club announced a bayonet had driven the first pair of female members into the club's membership in its 80-year history.


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The bayonet? Current Augusta National chairman Billy Payne.

When Payne assumed the chairman's role in 2006, the force behind the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta likely signaled the club's erstwhile all-male membership stance would come to an end.

It was 20 years ago that Payne sat with then-Augusta chairman Jack Stephens to jointly announce the Atlanta Olympic committee and the club had agreed to support the return of golf to the Games. Augusta National would agree to host two tournaments for the best male and female amateur players in the world.

“My idea was with the historic connections of all the great courses in the Southeast and that Bob Jones was one of our great sporting heroes, that the gift we could make to the Olympic movement should be golf,” Payne said in '92, hopeful this gesture would be enough to bring golf back after a 92-year absence.

Amid protests of Augusta's membership policies, just two years after admitting its first African-American member and never having invited a woman to join, the proposal died. Payne would later say it was the most regrettable part of his Olympic odyssey.

Fast forward 14 years and Payne has delivered something far more substantial than women playing at Augusta National. Women have been able to play as guests for years. What they weren't allowed to do, until today (really, October, when the club re-opens), is wear a green jacket.

“This is a joyous occasion,” Payne said in a Monday release announcing the new members.

Augusta National once moved at a glacial pace, but Payne has brought the club from Morse code to at least the speed of a 56K modem in his short, seven-year reign as chairman. The changes have been sweeping, staggering and universally lauded.

The tournament inked a new broadcast deal with ESPN. The club permits broadcast of more Masters coverage than ever - even non-tournament footage, like the Par 3 Contest. The tournament's online presence is the envy of the other majors.

Ticket requests are now made online, including single-day tickets. Hospitality has expanded to include a new facility. The food is still good and cheap.

The new practice facilities are arguably the best in the world, while Payne has restored the Sunday roars with a setup that makes best use of a course mangled by his predecessor in response to golf technology.

The club sponsors the Asian Amateur Championship, offering a Masters berth to the winner, to plant a flag in the world's fastest-growing continent.

Led by Payne, Augusta National had done almost everything it could to grow the game and develop a brand for the Masters. No longer a tradition unlike any other, it was an enterprise unlike any other.

The only thing left was to admit a woman, or two, or 20. That can be checked off the list now.

With the exception of Clifford Roberts, Payne may go down as the club's greatest and most significant chairman.

Do not mistake this decision as a public relations move, however. A deft marketer, Payne did not do this to appease anyone, except to perhaps spare himself the 20 awkward minutes during each year's pre-Masters press conference when he was asked when a woman would become a member.

The ratings for the Masters were not suffering without a female member. Thousands, including women, request the club for tournament tickets each year. Plenty more sit idly by on waiting lists, hoping for a chance to pierce the gates as a guest of the club for a few short days - provided they play by the rules.

Speaking of rules, it's difficult not to see today's announcement as delivered with a tinge of irony. Payne has repeatedly said, including this past April, that membership issues are a private matter. The club would not comment. It did, however, shout with glee from the mountain tops about the decision to admit former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore to the club after eight decades without a female member.

The same thing happened 22 years ago, when Augusta quietly acknowledged a "black gentleman was one of seven or eight new members" admitted to the club. The announcement came a month after the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, which was derided for its membership policies excluding African-Americans from membership.

Turns out, Secretary Rice is now a member there, too. Way better than being the NFL commissioner some day, right?

With the Augusta membership issue seemingly settled, who's next on the hit list to rectify inequality in golf? Remaining in Augusta, would the club ever host an LPGA Tour event there?

Maybe someone could send Martha Burk on a trip abroad to compel the Royal & Ancient to admit its first female member.

Let's take a road trip to Far Hills to bug the U.S. Golf Association into naming a second female president after the 61st man, Glen Nager, ends his term. It's been 15 years since Judy Bell stepped aside as the first woman to lead the organization.

When will the PGA of America follow suit? They're at 96 years and counting without a female president. Ted Bishop is poised to take over in November. Derek Sprague, elected secretary in 2010, is set to become the next president in 2014. The body will have been around for 100 years before a woman could lead the charge.

Even if today is a landmark one for golf, the occasion of a prestigious club admitting two of the nation's wealthy female elite is small in the grand scheme.

This isn't a victory for The 99 Percent. If anything, it's a victory for the 99 percent of The 1 Percent. Extending a membership doesn't, nor should it have to, make it up for plenty of other societal injustice.

Millions struggle to find enough money to join a health club, much less be worthy of an invite to Augusta National Golf Club.

Consider this the smallest of victories for The 50 Percent, women. The club is estimated to have 300 members. Now the XX chromosome is approximately a full .67 percent of Augusta National's membership after 80 years.

Women still earn less than men, are poorly represented in our government and are largely shut out of the C-suites of the nation's biggest corporations. Speaking of which, how about that invite to IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, Mr. Payne?

Until today and after today, there was a lot more to fight about than who can walk through the Members Only gate at Augusta National. Fiscal responsibility, growing income inequality, a war in Afghanistan, and a whole lot of other stuff needs to be solved, even as Rice and Moore tee it up next autumn.

Then again, today isn't the day to be a Debbie Downer. It's the day to be a Condi Champion.

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