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Masters chairman sidesteps questions about female members at Augusta National

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AUGUSTA, GA. — Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne boasted Wednesday about his club’s progressive approach to growing the game of golf globally and about pursuing younger participants. He declined at several turns, however, to address whether or not the club will admit a female member – now or in the future.

“Whenever that question is asked, all issues of membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the members,” Payne said, “and that statement remains accurate and remains my statement.”

In a 30-minute press conference that at times grew heated, Payne repeatedly fended off questions aimed at gaining some insight into the club’s deliberations about when – or if – a female member will be admitted.

The issue arose on the eve of this year’s Masters because Augusta National has a longstanding corporate relationship with IBM, which is a primary sponsor of the Masters. The club has traditionally extended an invitation for membership to IBM’s CEO. In January, IBM named Ginni Rometty as CEO, the first woman to hold the spot.

Asked specifically about Rometty, Payne emphasized that club officials never discuss individual members – or candidates -- publicly. Payne was also pressed, pointedly, as to what he would tell his own granddaughters about their prospects for membership at the club he oversees.

“Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that’s a question that deals with membership,” Payne said. “My conversations with my granddaughters are also personal.”

Rain could make for a ‘birdie-fest’

Augusta National took on 1.4 inches of rain during a violent storm Tuesday night, and afternoon thunderstorms added even more water to an already soaked course on Wednesday. Though the club has a sophisticated ventilation system that sucks moisture from the greens, the rest of the course could be soaked.

“It’s just not the same Augusta,” Phil Mickelson said. “It’s wet around the greens, and there’s no fear of the course. You’ve got to attack it this week. Unless something changes … it’s going to be a birdie-fest.”

Mickelson, a three-time champion, believes such a wet track would take away some of the advantage held by the players with more experience. A faster, dryer course means shots that are only slightly errant could run away to places from which it would be difficult to recover.

“If it plays like this, there won’t be the big mistakes made by any of the young players,” Mickelson said.

Masters officials indicated they could stiffen the setup should the course remain soft.

“We are very confident that we will have comparable tournament-speed greens” because of the ventilation system, said Fred Ridley, the chair of the competition committee. “Admittedly, we won’t have the firmness, but we think that we have looked at a setup that takes all of that into consideration.”

Payne said officials would be reluctant to allow players to lift, clean and place the ball, but they hadn’t ruled it out. …

The thunderstorms cut short the annual par-3 contest, with Padraig Harrington and Jonathan Byrd declared the winners at 5 under. No winner of the par-3 contest has ever gone on to win the Masters.

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