Opportunity lost for Augusta National

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It is a beautiful place, historic in the game of golf, known to millions around the world because of television coverage that beams the remarkable pictures into living rooms in more than 200 countries.

Augusta National is famous because of the Masters and the one-week peek the year's first major championship gives it. Then the spectators file out, the television cameras leave, the gates close and it becomes the most private of places, its business not to be discussed by insiders to outsiders.

Hence, the tense give-and-take between Augusta National chairman Billy Payne and assorted media Wednesday morning when the topic of the club's all-male membership -- certain to be broached -- was repeatedly rebuffed.

This came as no surprise. Payne made it clear that the club's membership issues are private and would not be discussed. The question was asked -- in some very insightful ways -- only to be deflected.

Payne was never going to let the subject of inviting the first woman to join the 78-year-old club dominate the pre-Masters discussion. He'd rather discuss the merits of lift, clean and place. And yet, Payne spent a portion of his annual news conference talking about all the ways Augusta National is attempting to grow the game, putting its considerable clout behind an agenda in Asia, as well as raising millions of dollars through a relatively recent formation of the Masters Tournament Foundation.

And so came this question: "Don't you think it would send a wonderful message to young girls around the world if they knew that one day they could join this very famous club?''

And the answer: "Once again, that deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it," Payne said.

In total, 11 questions were asked of Payne in various forms about a potential female member, the issue at the forefront again because of a Bloomberg News story last week. The business news service reported that Augusta National has traditionally offered membership to the sitting CEOs of its three main corporate sponsors, including IBM. On Jan. 1, 2012, Virginia Rometty became CEO of the company.

So that seemingly leaves Augusta National in a quandary: Which tradition does it abandon, male membership or inviting the IBM CEO?

"We don't talk about our private deliberations," Payne said. "We especially don't talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question."

A shame, really.

A shame that a place that brings so much joy to the golf world, that is revered along the far reaches of the globe, that has every right to set its own membership policies, can't be above the nonsense, invite a woman and move on.

Augusta National might be private, but it is not this week. It makes millions from the tournament, sits at the big table when golf's biggest issues are discussed, is viewed almost as a public trust. It now sells a video game, reaping even more millions, with all of Augusta National's portion earmarked for a charitable grow-the-game initiative.

Aren't women part of that? Wouldn't girls benefit from the knowledge that, perhaps one day, they could wear a green jacket and welcome fans to one of the world's most famous golf courses? (It should be noted that women are allowed to play at Augusta; none has ever been asked to be a member.)

And yet, when asked questions Wednesday about how he might discuss the woman-membership issue with his granddaughters at the kitchen table, Payne said, "My conversations with my granddaughters are also personal."

Two years ago, Payne scolded Tiger Woods for his personal indiscretions, using the same annual Wednesday news conference as his forum. It was a very public admonishment and stance, and yet the club is not willing to engage in discussions about its own dilemma concerning women members.

So Payne has set himself up to be questioned and criticized, despite all the good he is trying to do to enhance the Masters, his club and its charitable efforts. Augusta National's influence is enormous, and yet it continues to leave itself open to this kind of scrutiny.

The public doesn't seem to have much of an appetite for this debate, however. Thousands of spectators streamed through the gates Wednesday to enjoy an incredible day on the grounds, oblivious to any controversy. Golf fans care about the golf, not a membership quarrel in which most of us have no fight. You have to be asked to be a member, and you need enough financial resources. Donald Trump has plenty of money, but unless invited to join, he is just like you and me, getting his glimpses of the place once a year.

Nine years ago, Martha Burk's attempt to protest the club's membership policies was met with a yawn outside of the Augusta National gates, where more media members than protesters showed up. The club flexed its financial muscle by foregoing sponsorship for two years, taking the extraordinary step of dropping commercials so its sponsors would not be the targets of protests.

And in truth, that might have set the women's movement back. Then-club chairman Hootie Johnson said the club would not be threatened or bullied "by point of bayonet," and here we are all these years later calling for a change that should be so simple.

Perhaps such a change is in the works behind the scenes. Payne was never going to announce it on the eve of the tournament, so as not to take away from the year's first major. It is believed that membership issues are typically discussed after the club closes for the summer.

Maybe this happens quietly in the coming months, with no fanfare, no press release. Maybe Rometty is wearing a green jacket at next year's Masters, simply to be discovered walking amid the dogwoods and azaleas.

Would that be so bad?

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.