Billy Payne, Augusta National And The End Of The All-Male Golf Club (Also Of Freedom Of Association)

A strange, anti-climactic ending to what once was the most talked about story in golf transpired on Monday: the “glass ceiling” at Augusta National, home of the golfing world’s most prestigious event, The Masters, was shattered when two women were finally admitted as members to the exclusive private golf club.

The eunuchs at ESPN erupted into euphoric ecstasy as a horrible reminder of gender discrimination was finally ended, with the announcement that  female financier Darla Moore and Conservatism Inc.’s favorite black female minority Condoleezza Rice had accepted membership invitations.

Throughout the day, ESPN’s never-ending show Sports Center proudly boasted about the Iron Curtain keeping women, Title IX, and—ultimately—Progress out of Augusta National.  Featured columnist Rick Reilly asserted that this “should have been done 40 years ago.”

Oddly, Reilly didn’t make this point in any of his Sports Illustrated columns (such as A Three Rings Master, April 21, 2003) during the 2002-2003 war on Augusta National that feminist  Martha Burk and the New York Times waged together.  At the time, he was dismissive of the whole feminist thing.

As Steve Sailer just noted, this garnered 40 (forty!) news stories, columns, or editorials  from The Old Grey Lady denouncing the private club for bigotry, oppression, and persecution. [The New York Times` Augusta Blog, By Jack Shafer, Slate, Nov. 25, 2002,]

Perhaps it was the me-too “tweet” sent out by Senator John McCain—who told South Carolinians in 2000 he was in favor of the Confederate battle flag, only to apologize for the faux pas later—that epitomizes the entire Augusta National fight to remain exclusively male:

“Congratulations to Augusta Nat`l for joining the 21st century.”

The 21st century, McCain (or his tweet-staffer) apparently believes, will be a cultural Marxist nirvana in which petty bourgeois values like freedom of association will be not merely illegal but pathologized

Earlier in the 21st century that the former chairman of Augusta National, Hootie Johnson, received a letter from Martha Burk inquiring about admitting women. Sports Illustrated reported his famous reply:

“We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case,” Johnson wrote of Burk and the National Council of Women`s Organizations. “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.”

Master of his Universe, by Alan Shipnuk, April 7, 2003

But Hootie was replaced as chairman in 2006 by Billy Payne, formerly chief executive of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), the man who brought the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta. Ominously, the New York Times ran a flattering piece on Payne in 2007, introducing the new chairman of Augusta National as a southern gentleman who would have fit in nicely at the Piedmont Driving Club with long-time Coca-Cola President Robert Woodruff.  Reading between the lines,   you get the feeling that Payne was put in place to apply that bayonet and usher in the progressive 21st century:

How might Payne handle the membership question?

[St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church Minister Christopher A] Price, who continues to share church services with Payne, said he was not sure how the new chairman might address the membership issue.

“I’m looking forward to seeing that myself,” Price said. “There is an awful lot, the sex and racial issues, women and minorities; it’s a very tough thing he’s getting into.

“I think everything Billy does will be a reflection of his integrity, of his faith, and how he understands it.”

For Payne, Leading Augusta is Another Solemn Mission, by Damon Hack, April 3, 2007

Interestingly, Payne had earlier unsuccessfully attempted to have both the men’s and women’s golf event at the 1996 Olympics played at Augusta National (and, paradoxically, bringing gender integration to the club six years before the Burk-New York Times blowup).

But Mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young and Black nationalist city council members were upset that Payne would dare suggest the playing of an Olympic sport at a venue where Black people were, once, barred from being members.

The New York Times joined in, noting that Augusta’s first Black member—Ron Townsend—was only admitted in October 1990. In its account, Billy Payne was on the defensive:

“Besides, we`ll be running the tournaments. When we open up this prestigious course to both sexes and to all races and religious backgrounds, black inner-city kids are going to see blacks, Indians and Asians playing on a course that is so magnificent, so beautiful.”

“They`re going to say, `I don`t have to grow up to be 6-foot-10 to play basketball,` ” continued Payne, who is white.”They can play golf.”

The issue has already divided politicians in Georgia — along racial and geographic lines. The Atlanta City Council this week unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution urging the U.S.O.C. and the I.O.C. not to select Augusta as the host course for the Olympic competition. Councilman Bill Campbell, the sponsor of the resolution, called the site “profoundly inappropriate, given the historic lack of any black, Jewish or other minority members.”

“Augusta National, by virtually all accounts, had a racially and sexually discriminating membership,” said Campbell, who is black.

Olympics; Augusta: A Dispute Within a Dispute, by Filip Bondy, November 21 1992

The result:

Regrets? Billy Payne`s had a few, but too few to mention.

The man who has done it his way in bringing the Olympic Games to Atlanta always accentuates the positive. He never publicly expresses regrets about the process of putting on the Olympics.

But Saturday over lunch with a dozen reporters from around the world he admitted his 1996 Olympics experience isn`t quite complete.

“It`s clear the biggest thing missing here is golf at Augusta,” said Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. “I`m sorry about that. It`s my biggest personal disappointment.”

Losing Olympic golf also was one of the biggest disappointments for Augusta-area residents, many of whom said the whole episode left a bad taste in their mouths for the whole Olympics.

After Atlanta won the rights to host the Olympics the members of Augusta National agreed to allow their club – normally closed for the summer – to be used as the site of Olympic golf. Payne and the Augusta National even held a joint press conference on Oct. 21, 1992, at the golf club to announce that golf would return to the Olympics after a 92-year absence.

It seemed a marriage made on Mt. Olympus: The most famous sporting event in the world hosting a golf tournament on one of the most famous golf course in the world.

But members of the Atlanta City Council had not been consulted about the decision to try to play golf in Augusta and they raised objections. They said they were concerned because the Augusta National is a predominantly white club. They also wanted to have the golf tournament held in Atlanta.

ACOG officials tried to smooth things over, but the political squabbling got so intense, not even the persuasive Payne could calm down the Atlanta political leaders. Finally, ACOG decided to not even ask the International Olympic Committee to approve golf as a sport in 1996.

That ended Augusta`s Olympic dream. And in the middle of Billy Payne`s biggest triumph it still bothers him.

Billy Payne is teed off over Olympic golf, by Dennis Sodomka, Augusta Chronicle, August 3, 1996

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Payne announced that Rice and Moore had been extended membership offers to Augusta National. He wanted his legacy to be something other than going against the New York Times.

So one of the last remnants of the so-called “culture war” now ends, with Martha Burk getting the last laugh: “Oh my God. We won,” she blurted out when contacted by The Associated Press.

Welcome to the 21st Century indeed, Mr. Payne. Your legacy is now firmly cemented as the man who threw open the doors of Augusta National so that Martha Burk could eventually be a guest of Rice for a round of 18—a true representation of progress, equality, and the awesome power of democracy in America.

 Paul Kersey[Email him] is the author of the blog SBPDL, and has published the books SBPDL Year OneHollywood in Blackface and Escape From Detroit.