If you’re the leader of a prestigious private golf club trying to decide the closing remarks of your annual “State of Our Club” news conference, one might think it wise to (1) consider what the press is already saying about your organization and (2) pick a topic that doesn’t sound completely contradictory to said chatter.
But Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, seemed not to worry too much about either when he riffed for a couple of minutes Wednesday about the club’s “efforts to grow the game of golf” and its concerns “about the absence of growth in golf and especially among the younger demographic.” Here’s Payne: “Golf is too precious, too wonderful, to sit on the sidelines and watch decreasing participation. Whether we lead occasionally or follow always, it doesn't matter; it only matters that we try.”
It was like dousing himself in pollen from the tall pines of the storied course and expecting the bees not to swarm. After a number of recent headlines about Augusta National and its tradition of not allowing women to be members (the story erupted again after Bloomberg News questioned whether Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, the recently named CEO of IBM, would get an invitation to join), Payne must have known that reporters would pounce on the idea of trying to “grow the game” when half the population can’t aspire to be members at one of its most hallowed grounds. Golf has unquestionably been hit by the recession, but he could have addressed that concern without opening the club up to even more criticism over its roster.
Payne faced a series of questions about the club’s stance on women members. “I note your concerns about the growth of golf around the world, and I also note that Augusta National is a very famous golf club,” one reporter asked. “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 golf club?”
And then another question: “It seems like a mixed message, Billy, is what he’s saying. You’re throwing a lot of money into growing the game, and yet there's still a perception that certain people are excluded.” And another: “Mr. Chairman, as a grandfather, what would you say to your granddaughters? How would you explain leading a club that does not include female membership?”
Each time, Payne deflected the questions, responding that the club does not discuss membership matters. When asked whether he thought the club’s position reflected negatively on it, he answered somewhat awkwardly that “there's certainly a difference of opinion on that, and I don't think I have formed an opinion on that.” At the end, another reporter asked Payne what he should tell his daughters about why the club doesn’t invite women to be members. Payne still didn’t bite, but his response was a little stiff: “I don’t know your daughters,” he said, adding after a follow-up: “I have no advice for you there, sir.”
Augusta National Golf Club is a private club that may have a right to make whatever membership decisions it chooses. (Of course, everyone from President Obama to GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney will still weigh in.) And it may already be working to invite Ginni Rometty to join in its own discreet and quiet way. But Payne and his advisers would have saved the club some public pain had they done a better job of sensing the contradiction inherent in its membership roster and its P.R.-worthy efforts to expand the game. If you don’t want to have to answer sensitive questions about your club’s policies, it’s better to go for the safe par and steer clear of remarks that seem to counter them.
More from On Leadership:
Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter: