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Billy Payne says Augusta National membership is a private affair (+video)

The chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club did not respond Wednesday to repeated questions about when a woman would be invited to join the men's-only club.

By Eddie PellsAssociated Press / April 4, 2012

Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club Billy Payne responds to a question during a news conference before the Masters golf tournament Wednesday, April 4, in Augusta, Ga.

Matt Slocum/AP


Augusta, Georgia

Jabbed, prodded and poked repeatedly about a topic that never really goes away, Billy Payne wouldn't budge.

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Faced with questions at his annual news conference about when a woman would become a member at the home of the Masters, the Augusta National chairman kept giving different variations on the same answer: That's our business, not yours.

The topic was on the front burner again Wednesday, on the eve of the year's first major, because one of the club's longtime sponsors, IBM, has a new female CEO — Virginia Rometty. The last four CEOs at IBM, all male, have been invited to be members.

Payne's polite-but-firm responses were in direct contrast to those of his predecessor, Hootie Johnson. When faced with the issue 10 years ago, Johnson famously declared female membership would come on the club's timetable and "not at the point of a bayonet."

"As has been the case whenever that question is asked, all issues of membership have been and are subject to private deliberations of the members," Payne said when the inevitable question was asked for the first time Wednesday. "That statement remains accurate and that remains my statement."

Asked to expand on his refusal to comment, he gave two reasons: "Number One, we don't talk about our private deliberations. Number Two, we especially don't talk about them when a named candidate is part of the question."

He did not say whether Rometty was that specific "named candidate."

The issue first came up in 2002, when Martha Burk, then the chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, campaigned for Augusta National to end its all-male membership and threatened to boycott companies whose executives belonged to the club. Johnson responded by cutting loose corporate backers and the Masters was televised without commercials for the next two years. A planned protest before the 2003 Masters was a dud and the issue slowly receded.

When Payne replaced Johnson as chairman of the club and of the Masters tournament in 2006, he said there was "no specific timetable" for admitting women. The question was raised at the 2007 and 2010 Masters. Both times, Payne said membership issues were private.

Today, in addition to IBM, Exxon Mobile and AT&T are also sponsors of the Masters.

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