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Chairman Payne's Annual Statement from the Masters; No News on First Female Member


As per tradition, on the eve of the year's first major championship the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club gave his "state-of-the-Masters Tournament" speech and entertained questions from reporters afterward.

Chairman Billy Payne, once again, led the discussion just as he has since taking the reins from former chairman Hootie Johnson in May 2006. Besides discussing the tournament itself, Payne was anticipated to make some sort of statement regarding the possible inclusion of the new CEO of IBM - a major tournament sponsor, Virginia Rometty. The last four CEOs at IBM, all male, were given membership in the historic club.

But Payne revealed no new information on the subject. "As has been the case whenever that question is asked, all issues of membership have been and are subject to private deliberations of the members," he said Wednesday. "That statement remains accurate and that remains my statement."

Asked to elaborate, Payne gave two reasons why he wouldn't: "One, we don't talk about our private deliberations. No. 2, we especially don't talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question." He did not indicate whether Rometty was that specific "named candidate."

Though several reporters pushed the issue, Payne parried the inquiries. "Once again, that deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it."

Here's what Chairman Payne had to say during his Wednesday sit-down with the media.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Good morning, everyone. I'm Billy Payne, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, and as always, it's my distinct pleasure to welcome you once again to the Masters Tournament. I'm honored today to be joined by two of our most important members, Mr. Craig Heatley, Chairman of the Media Committee, and Mr. Fred Ridley, Chairman of our Competition Committees. As I hope you all know, all of us at Augusta National take great pleasure in welcoming the world of golf to Augusta every April. We are proud to showcase our remarkably beautiful golf course, and to witness the compelling competition of the world's greatest players.

But in the midst of our excitement, we pause with all who love this great sport, and share in the sadness of the passing last May of our friend and two time Masters Champion, Seve Ballesteros. We will never forget this fiery competitor, who literally willed his way to victory, and in doing so, inspired millions around the globe. And in January, the sudden death of Jim Huber, a terrific talent, and a man who loaned his great voice to our Internet presentation in recent years.

And more recently, and very personal to me, the passing of media and press giant, Furman Bisher. As long ago as 1959, I can remember Furman sitting in my living room, engaged in a lively debate with my dad over why he was covering Georgia Tech football so much more than our beloved University of Georgia Bulldogs. (Laughter.) And believe me, he was not shy in later years about telling me how I should run the Atlanta Olympic Games. And he was usually right. But mostly I remember a very recent exchange of letters. He told me that he was proud of me. I told him, he was my hero. Furman Bisher, there will never be another one.

Last year at the Masters, we witnessed, and now we all remember, one of the most exciting and relentlessly unpredictable Masters in our Tournament's history. The young and exceptionally talented Charl Schwartzel emerged from an impressive, and we all know volatile leaderboard during the final nine holes, closing with an unprecedented four consecutive birdies in fashioning what was indeed an instant classic.

But now another year, and all of our Members, staff, and volunteers are well aware that our duty and our responsibility go far beyond the competition itself. In the spirit of our founders and consistent with the tradition they established to constantly strive for improvement, we do our best to meet and hopefully surpass the expectations of all of our constituents. Just being good is not good enough.

The prices at our concessions, the buildings we build, the beauty of our environs, the smiles on the faces of our volunteers, all are a part of our desire, some would even say our obsession, to do better every year; to ensure that the Masters retains its place among the world's great sporting events. This year we welcome 96 worthy competitors from 18 countries, 18 past champions, 15 first time participants, and six amateurs, including proudly our 2011 low amateur and repeat champion of the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship, Hideki Matsuyama.

And what an opening we will all enjoy to this year's tournament, as our popular Honorary Starter ceremony brings together golf's big three. Joining Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus this year is three time Masters Champion and golf's great international ambassador, Gary Player. Their presence brings back so many wonderful memories. They are inexorably linked to the Masters, and their accomplishments still reverberate among our hallowed grounds.

And what a golf course they and all our competitors will see. Even after the significant storm of last night, our golf course is in great shape. And we are certain it will provide a very competitive test for these great players. From a playability perspective, the course remains essentially the same as in 2011. As part of our annual agronomy plan, we rebuilt and re-grassed the 8th and 16th greens last summer, adding heating and cooling systems beneath their surfaces.

On No. 6, the Masters and Members tees, which were previously separated by elevation changes, have been combined to form a single teeing ground, thereby providing increased flexibility for setup during the tournament. Additionally we rerouted the service road that crosses the fairway on the way to our Patrons service area on the way to the 12th tee. As a result, we were able to add an additional observation stand to the golfers' right on No. 14, thereby providing increased Patron opportunities of this challenging, fun, and famous putting surface.

Finally, as it relates to physical improvements, and in response to repeated requests from our Members and companies with whom we have done business, in many cases for decades, we built Berckmans Place, adjacent to our Gate 9 and the 5th fairway. It offers the enhanced level of hospitality requested and allows us to provide the Masters experience for a greater number of golf fans. And in years to come, Berckmans Place will be a very substantial contributor to our Masters Tournament Foundation for the growth of the game.

Administratively, we successfully transitioned our ticketing requests and fulfillment process to an online environment at Masters.com. We believe that a digital ticketing portal is a fulfillment process of the future, and we wanted to be on the leading end of that developing technology.

All 2012 practice round tickets and a limited number of daily Tournament Badges were offered over the Internet, and as expected, the demand far exceeded the number of tickets available. Beginning May 1, ticket applications for the 2013 will be available once again online at Masters.com. Last year we were pleased with the introduction of major improvements to our website and to our Smartphone and tablet applications. These improvements were primarily motivated by our contrarian belief that even beauty and sense of place can be created on a digital device when the subject matter is as remarkable as Augusta National. Those efforts we believe were successful, and hopefully this year will be even better.

Digital platforms notwithstanding, our television broadcast continues to be an increasingly successful method for sharing the drama and excitement of our tournament with golf fans around the world. This year we are pleased to confirm that the Masters will be viewed and enjoyed in over 200 countries; in many cases, with limited commercial interruption, and in every case, promoting the great game of golf to hundreds of millions of fans.

I cannot close my remarks today without joining the growing chorus of golf organizations expressing their concerns about the absence of growth in golf and especially among the younger demographic. We are trying to do our part, as has been evidenced by the significant annual contributions we make to many domestic and international golf organizations.

Several years ago, we created our Junior Patron Program, allowing free admission to the tournament for kids between the ages of 8 and 16. We continue our efforts to grow the game of golf in Asia in partnership with the R&A and the resulting Asia Pacific Amateur Championship is entering its fourth year and has been a terrific success. We participated in the creation of an enormously successful award winning video game in a continuing attempt to bring young people to the game. The second edition was just released, and as was the case with the first, all proceeds go to our Masters Tournament Foundation.

Impressive efforts I hope, but not enough. We can do better. We can be a better partner with the established golf organizations as they address these critical issues. To that end, we have appointed a very smart and motivated team of Members who have been given the charge of determining what more we can do: What ideas might potentially attract kids and other groups of potential golfers to the game; how can these ideas be integrated into the expansive and impressive efforts of the other golf organizations. The problems are so easy to identify: Golf is too hard; it takes too long to play; it's not a team sport; it's too expensive. The solution is more difficult. But we must try.

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. Thanks again for being here. And Craig, I'm ready for a few questions.

Q. Mr. Chairman, we did have a pretty strong storm move through overnight. Can you talk about any significant damage on the big course or the Par 3 Course which will be the spotlight today.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Yes, sir, I can talk a little about it. And first let me begin by saluting our incredible team of staff and volunteers. I think we were delayed in opening the course only 30 or 45 minutes; so thanks to remarkable work. We lost several trees around the golf course, none of which were significant in the context that they will impact the competition. Debris was all around; took hours and hours, and the cleanup remains ongoing. We had some overrun on Rae's Creek. Thankfully it was below Hogan's Bridge and not noticeable and not impacting competition.

We had 1.4 inches of rain on the course. We have currently extremely wet conditions. We had our restroom at No. 16 tee struck by a falling tree, significant damage. We hope to have it rebuilt and up and running by the end of the day. (Laughter.) Several of our bunkers were completely washed out. We expect them to be fully restored to competitive conditions by the end of the day. So, a significant storm. Once again, an amazing response, and thanks to our team, our staff and volunteers.

Q. Was there ever any consideration given to inviting Ernie Els?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: First of all, I'd like to say that we are great fans of Ernie. He's a great player, and we expect him to be back with us shortly and often. But after evaluating all of the circumstances, we chose obviously not to extend an invitation but look forward to seeing him soon.

Q. You began talking about a number of the changes that happened here at the course. Since you've been Chairman, all of those changes have been well documented. One of the changes that has not happened to the Club is the all male Membership. Wonder if you ever foresee that changing, and why or why not.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Well, as has been the case, whenever that question is asked, all issues of Membership are now and have been historically subject to the private deliberations of the Members, and that statement remains accurate and remains my statement.

Q. You spoke about Charl's thrilling finish last year, but can you talk about the way that Rory handled himself over that last round?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I'm a great fan of Rory's, and I think we all felt for him in the last round last year. We are all so happy the way he recovered the balance of the year, and I think we will see a very good showing from him. And he is, in every respect, a true gentleman, and I think has a great future. And I would not at all be surprised if he didn't have a green jacket in the future, as well.

Q. Mr. Chairman, the PGA Tour is talking about making significant changes to its scheduling, and there seems to be a presumption that if they make these changes and bring the eight tournaments or so in the fall into the FedEx Cup Series, everybody keeps talking about the benefits of that, one of those being obviously giving an invitation to this event, which would mean potentially eight other players getting invited. How are you going to deal with that, or are you going to look at the way you're going to deal with invitations in the future?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Yes, sir. I'm going to deal with it immediately by turning it over to my expert, Mr. Fred Ridley. (Laughter.)

FRED RIDLEY: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. (Chuckling.) As you've alluded to, the PGA Tour has decided in concept to change their year to a fiscal year tour schedule. It's my understanding that they are in the process now of evaluating the impact of what that is going to do on the allocation of points towards their season ending tour championship. As we do every year, we evaluate our invitation criteria, and that will be something we are looking at based on where the PGA Tour comes out on that evaluation. We understand that whatever happens is not going to take place until the fall of 2013, so it would not affect the Masters until 2014. But it is certainly something we will be considering along with a general review of the qualification criteria, which we do every year.

Q. Is it possible to elaborate further on why membership for Mrs. Rometty wouldn't be considered, just to give us a little more spiel on that.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I guess two reasons: One, we don't talk about our private deliberations. No. 2, we especially don't talk about it when a named candidate is a part of the question.

Q. I've always found these news conferences to be a place where it's sort of a launching point for ideas and innovations that are followed throughout the year, not only by the other major championships, but really by people throughout the game of golf. So, talking about the junior program, the video game and the things you have done to grow the game, can you share anything in these early stages from your committee or yourself that might help grow the game, and especially that might appeal to kids, anything that we can take from this room and say, hey, guys, this, could be coming down the pike?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Well, I would like to, and I have my own personal ideas. However, I think the task force that we have appointed that is working, I need to let them finish their work before I'm able to articulate the best ideas to the surface. Although I'm reasonably certain that there will be some good ones, and that we will be able to talk to the USGA and the R&A and the PGA of America and see which of those ideas we can work together on to get the greatest coverage and effectiveness. So maybe we are a year away from that.

Q. And are we trying to make it more accessible to every young person out there so they can enjoy a lifetime of golf?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: That's certainly part of it, yes.

Q. Mr. Chairman, you've expressed concern today about the state of the game. The club has spent a lot of money to extend its golf course to respond to increases in distance, and you've talked about slow play and cost. Will you be expressing to the task force any views that you have based on your experience since you've been chairman about how that influences the cost of the game or the way the game is played?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I'm sure that I will share a lot of my private opinions with them, and they will embrace those they think are good enough to take to the next step. But once again, I think all of those factors are important. And I really don't want to go any further, because I'm way down the road thinking about all these potential ideas, and I need a governor placed on me first I think before I talk about it.

Q. In the past and years ago, Bobby Jones expressed some concern about croquet style putting that had some influence on the rule making decisions there. Long putters and belly putters and anchoring of the clubs are an issue now. Does this club have any sort of opinion about that, and will it try to influence the decision on that?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Do we? (Turning to Ridley.)

FRED RIDLEY: Well, the long putter is obviously conforming today. Like any other issue relating to the Rules of Golf, whether they are playing rules or equipment rules, we follow the lead. We are followers in this regard. We do follow the lead of the governing bodies, the USGA, and the R&A. We know that they look at all kind of issues relating to the rules. So we don't really have an opinion, but we certainly will be guided by the decisions and the rulings of the governing bodies like we always have.

Q. Mr. Chairman, 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. 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?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Once again, that deals with a membership issue, and I'm not going to answer it.

Q. No, it doesn't.

Q. 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.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: That is a membership issue that I'm not going to - thank you for your -

Q. It sends -

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Thank you.

Q. It sends a wonderful message to girls around the world that they could join this emblematic golf club; it's not a Membership question.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Thank you for your question, sir.

Q. Mr. Chairman, as a grandfather, what would you say to granddaughters? How would you explain leading a club that does not include female membership?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Once again, though expressed quite artfully, I think that's a question that deals with Membership, and -

Q. It's a kitchen table, personal question.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Well, my conversations with my granddaughters are also personal. (Laughter.)

Q. Billy, kind of on that note, you talked about what a great Masters it was last year and how much anticipation there is coming into this year's Masters. I'm curious how you felt when this issue comes up again on the eve of the Masters, and do you feel it reflects negatively on either the club or the tournament?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I think there's certainly a difference of opinion on that, and I don't think I have formed an opinion on that, Doug. But certainly there's - people have different opinions on that subject.

Q. Fred, weather the next couple of days is going to give you some issues, I assume that means you're not going to get the golf course you really wanted to have. How are you going to deal with all of that?

FRED RIDLEY: Well, clearly the golf course will not be as firm and fast as it would otherwise be. We are very confident that we will have comparable tournament speed greens with our SubAir system. Admittedly we won't have the firmness, but we think that we have looked at a setup that takes all of that into consideration, as we always do with weather considerations; and we think it's going to be a good setup for tomorrow and we will just keep our fingers crossed that we get the round in.

Q. Mr. Chairman, last year here in this room, you talked about Masters.com and invited people to make suggestions about how to make the Tournament better and how to make the golf course better. Could you talk about how many suggestions came in and whether any were put into practice?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I think we did that two ways. We did on the course inquiries digitally, and we get all kinds of great comment about how to improve our food service, seating suggestions, all kind of things that we regularly review and incorporate. Plus, we have an entire team of MacKenzie folks out here evaluating specific things that we know need improvement. On the online environment, I think we ask mostly for comments about how our Internet presentation could be improved, and we have made dramatic changes again this year. I think once again, in the general philosophy that less is more, trying to do that, and beauty as I referred to in my remarks, it's kind of unusual to see an Internet presentation that's just trying to be beautiful as well as informative. It's a delicate balance, and I think we are getting pretty close. We have had a lot of help doing it.

Q. We have heard rave reviews about the new practice facility from the players and patrons. Any changes for that part of the golf course?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I don't think so. We added a restroom this year. The year before we made the seating area a permanent mounding. And I can't remember any plans that we have to make any changes in the near term.

Q. There was a lot of mud on the ball yesterday and again today in some of the practice rounds, would you consider, I know you wouldn't like to, but lift, clean and place?

FRED RIDLEY: We would all -

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: You'd better let me answer that one.

FRED RIDLEY: Excuse me? (Laughter).

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I'm going to start with that one, and you can correct me. We surely would not want to have to do that. That would be a decision very difficult to make. However, we are also bright enough to know that weather conditions can have an impact on that, and possibly cause us to change our minds on that issue. Were you going to say that (looking at Ridley).

FRED RIDLEY: I couldn't have set it better, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: Thank you. (Laughter).

Q. You said your conversations with your granddaughters are private. What would you suggest I tell my daughters?

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I don't know your daughters.

Q. What without them, that the most prestigious golf club in the country, they are not -

CHAIRMAN PAYNE: I have no advice for you there, sir.

CRAIG HEATLEY: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.

The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.