Masters chairman sidesteps female membership issue

AUGUSTA, Georgia Wed Apr 4, 2012 2:21pm EDT

Augusta National Golf Club's chairman Billy Payne speaks at a press conference during a practice round for the 2011 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, April 6, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Augusta National Golf Club's chairman Billy Payne speaks at a press conference during a practice round for the 2011 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, April 6, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

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AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The prickly issue of whether women should be allowed to join the exclusive all-male Augusta National Golf Club refuses to go away.

On the eve of the Masters, chairman Billy Payne was again peppered with questions about whether the 80-year-old club would change its restrictive policy.

In keeping with the club's secretive traditions, he refused to provide a clear answer when asked repeatedly by the media, saying only that membership issues were not for public debate.

"Once again, that deals with a membership issue and I'm not going to answer it," he told a news conference on Wednesday.

The issue of whether women should be allowed to become a member at the home of the Masters has been around for years - most notably a decade ago when Martha Burk led a series of protests - but took on added significance after Ginni Rometty was recently named Chief Executive Officer of IBM.

IBM, the world's largest technology services company, is a long-standing sponsor of the Masters and its past four CEO's have been granted membership to Augusta National.

The club now faces a dilemma of whether to change its policy to allow Rometty to join or spurn one of its major sponsors, but Payne refused to say whether the issue had even been discussed.

"One, we don't talk about our private deliberations," he said. "Number two, we especially don't talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question."

Augusta's invitation only membership has been steeped in secrecy since the conservative club opened in 1932. Women are allowed to play the course only if invited by a member but cannot become members themselves.

The club does not reveal its full list of members, believed to be around 300, although it is known that some of the powerful men from industry and finance, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are members.

It was not until 1990 that Augusta National invited its first black member, businessman Ron Townsend, following a row over racial discrimination at the whites-only Shoal Creek club in Alabama that was selected to host the PGA Championship.

IBM played a big part in the change, joining other sponsors in putting pressure on Shoal Creek by pulling its television advertisements.

Like Augusta, the club has kept mum on the subject and not commented on whether Rometty should be invited.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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