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At Augusta National, only the face changes

| Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Meet the new chairman of Augusta National Golf Club.

He is a man renowned for his influence in business and political circles, whose civic experience shows him to be a progressive thinker. He speaks fondly of the legacy created by founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts and how his foremost responsibility is to preserve the great traditions of a private club and its prestigious tournament.

That's what Billy Payne said on a conference call Monday.

It's the same thing Hootie Johnson said at his first Masters as the chairman in 1999. So for those trying to speculate what changes await with Payne at the helm, don't bother. The only thing predictable about this club is how little information its chairmen impart, always on their terms.

Martha Burk thought Payne at least would be willing to open a dialogue about Augusta National inviting a female to join for the first time in its 73-year history, but that was hollow hope. She knew better -- or should have.

"As we've said, and as you've heard many times in the past on membership matters, all of them will be decided by our members, and we have no specific timetable to address that issue," Payne said.

That should sound familiar. The only thing missing was the weaponry.

"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," Johnson wrote in his famous missive after receiving a letter from Burk in the summer of 2002.

Payne was told of Burk's desire to talk but said he didn't think any dialogue would be "meaningful or helpful."

So ... you wouldn't take her call?

"I don't think any dialogue would be meaningful or helpful," Payne repeated, another standard practice of Masters chairmen.

There's little chance Payne will respond -- or even see -- the three-page letter sent overnight from Burk and Cyrus Mehri, her Washington-based lawyer who played leading roles in landmark settlements with Texaco and Coca-Cola, and who helped inspire the NFL to get serious about hiring black coaches.

But in those cases, Mehri usually heard more than a dial tone.

To get a truer sense of Payne's loyalties to Augusta National and its traditions, consider his answer when asked which would be his greater achievement -- bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, or being selected the sixth chairman of a golf club with about 300 members.

"I will end up believing that this was the most fortunate opportunity of my lifetime," Payne said.

Such is the seductive power of Augusta National.

"He cares deeply about the club," said Dick Pound, an IOC member from Canada. "He was probably no happier at getting the Atlanta Games than he was to learn he had been accepted at Augusta National."

Payne is gregarious even in his most dour moods, and his salesmanship and zeal were two reasons why an Olympic torch was lit in Atlanta. Slip that green jacket over his shoulders, however, and he plays it close to the vest.

Payne was chairman of the Tour Championship when it was held at East Lake in 2002, the height of the "Hootie and Martha" show. The skies were overcast with light rain one morning when he spotted a reporter and made small talk.

"We'll see if we can't do something about this weather," Payne said.

Never mind the weather, the reporter replied. The bigger question was the cloud hovering over that private golf club 120 miles east down Interstate 20.

"You know I can't talk about club matters," Payne said. "How's your family doing?"

Some believed Johnson was close to inviting a female member to join until Burk got involved. After all, Johnson played a key role in integrating higher education in South Carolina, and he later appointed the first black to a bank board in his home state.

This, however, was sheer speculation. And it's equally speculative to believe Payne has put female membership at the top of his agenda, despite 10 years of consensus-building that was required for such a massive project as the Olympics.

Masters chairmen are only predictable in what they say, not what they do.

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