During his annual pre-Masters press conference in 2012, the chair of Augusta National Golf Club turned himself inside out under his green jacket in machinations designed, successfully, to stonewall reporters intent on wresting a response about why the golf club refused to accept women members.
Wednesday, on the eve of the 2013 Masters Tournament, while two women have been fitted for those frumpy viridian blazers, the world that Billy Payne governs had -- if not exactly flipped upside down since the admittance last August of Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore into the formerly exclusively all-male enclave -- definitely evolved.
“I hope the experience for Condi and Darla, as members of our club, has been every bit as rewarding and enjoyable for them over the last eight months as it has been for their fellow members,” said Payne. “It’s just awesome.
Which raises the rather obvious question -- what took you guys so long?
In addition to welcoming Rice and Moore to their first Masters as card-carrying members of the club, Payne far less quietly hired a woman executive to help him grow the business operations involved in running the august first major of the men’s golf season.
Payne based both decisions, according to Bloomberg, not on changing mores outside the gates of a club that for many years overhauled tradition as rapidly as Ben Crane lines up a shot, but on the need to satisfy corporate sponsors. While the Masters went on without sponsorship in 2003 and 2004 following a women’s organization’s campaign to embarrass the club into admitting women members, observers believe continuing corporate patronage was the underlying reason that Payne opened Augusta’s doors to Rice and Moore.
Payne continually refused to address membership questions during last year’s pre-tourney press conference. He then made a big show of announcing the changed rules four months after dissension erupted during Masters week about the exclusion of IBM’s new chief executive, Virginia Rometty, from the club.
Payne finally relented, according to Bloomberg, to assuage its primary sponsor, IBM, and smooth the path to Rometty’s admittance without appearing to have kowtowed to external pressure.
“They finally did the right thing, but they acted on corporate need,” Marcia Chambers, author of “The Unplayable Lie: The Untold Story of Women and Discrimination in American Golf, told Bloomberg. “Steps had to be taken to admit [Rometty].”
There was no such trumpeting of the hiring early this year of Casey Coffman, ex-senior VP of corporate strategy and development for Madison Square Garden Co., as the club’s senior director of business affairs. In her new role, Coffman serves as Payne’s second-in-command on Masters sponsorship and broadcast issues, according to Bloomberg.
Adding Coffman to the payroll was just part of Payne’s plan to upgrade and expand Augusta National’s business dealings. As Bloomberg noted, he has inked new sponsorship and broadcast contracts, invested $13 million in corporate-hospitality facilities in which business partners and members like Berkshire Hathaway chair Warren Buffett, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and, yes, Moore and Rice, can wine and dine clients.
Payne made note of such changes ahead of last year’s Masters and expanded on it on Wednesday.
“The Berckmans Place came out...in response to decades, decades, of requests by companies with whom we have been affiliated...for an upgraded level of hospitality,” Payne said. “They were going elsewhere to get it...so to accommodate the wishes of those companies...and our own members asking us to be able to do that for companies with whom they were associated or affiliated, we decided to build it. And it's only two days old, but I think it's going to be quite a success.”
Other new club hires include a former product development and design exec from Walt Disney World to oversee Masters merchandising, and a Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. exile who now runs club operations. -- Live from the IZOD Social Hub