Reading from a statement, Payne added: “His future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his effort to change. I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile.”
As the chairman of a club with a membership that includes chief executives from many of the country’s biggest corporations and investment banks as well as business leaders worldwide, it is unlikely Payne’s statement was meant to be a personal one. Augusta National is an exceedingly secretive place, where things like the grass seed mixture spread on the grounds is kept guarded. Its membership list is shielded from the public and changeable, but has in recent years represented chiefs of companies that would have been sponsors of Woods, like AT&T , or close partners, like the many financial services executives that stocked a membership roll leaked in 2002.
Interviews with members in past years have indicated that while business deals are generally not discussed at the club, business issues are. The suddenly disreputable affairs of a four-time Masters champion and his dissolution as a one-time champion of the athlete-as-pitchman marketplace would certainly have been a probable topic of conversation.
For years, the voice of Augusta National has been one voice and that voice is the chairman’s. Forty years ago, that voice was delivered autocratically, but in recent decades, the membership has helped guide the club’s public comments. On Wednesday, on the most prominent stage the membership has, Payne appeared to be speaking for his irritated Augusta National brethren.
Sitting at a lectern in the club’s news conference room, Payne spoke with two high-ranking members at his side and another 15 to 20 Augusta National members sitting in the back. Shoulder to shoulder, each wore the emblematic green jacket.
Payne’s rebuke came on a day when Woods played another uneventful practice round in preparation for his return on Thursday to competitive golf. The day also saw the airing a new 30-second television commercial for Nike featuring a seemingly somber Woods staring straight into the camera with the voice of his father saying: “I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?”
Payne began his remarks with a list of accomplishments and acknowledgments associated with the upcoming tournament, then suddenly mentioned Woods. He said Woods’s golf game and work ethic were worthy of comparison to Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones, but he quickly added that Woods had forgotten that with “fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility.” He called Woods’s behavior “egregious” and added, “Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role medal we saw for our children.”
Payne, whose background as the driving force behind the 1996 Atlanta Olympics has made him comfortable in the spotlight, knew he had the attention of the approximately 100 reporters in attendance. He would have had a bigger crowd to play to — Woods’s Monday news conference drew twice as many, with a long waiting list — but many reporters were elsewhere because the chairman’s address is so commonly without significant news.
Payne continued in an even but forceful voice.
“Is there a way forward?” he asked, referring to Woods’s future. “I hope yes. I think yes. I hope he can come to understand that life’s greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people. We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner. But this time, with a significant difference from the past. This year, it will not be just for him, for all of us, who believe in second chances.”
Asked later to elaborate on his comments, Payne declined. He did concede that he had talked with Woods at Tuesday night’s Masters champions dinner but did not divulge what was said.
Payne was asked about several other issues related to Woods’s return, including enhanced security and whether Augusta National was worried that the attention Woods would receive could overshadow the Masters.
“We were very aware of and responsive to the possible issues of this week,” Payne said. “So without going into details, I think we did what we would always do and that is to make adequate provision for every contingency.”
A few minutes later, Payne conceded that the increase in security both inside and outside the club’s gates has its limits. “We prepare as best we can, fully realizing and knowing that when they come through the security,” Payne said, “you can screen for everything but bad intentions.”
On the subject of Woods’s making the Masters a sideshow to his return to public life, Payne shook his head.
“We don’t look at things that way,” he said. “We are very secure in who we are, and the Masters has almost now a 74-year history. We just kind of do things our way. We are not threatened by other big news stories or things like that.”
Finally, Payne faced a question about Augusta National’s all-male membership. Reminded that he had talked of role models and responsibility, Payne was asked if the club felt responsibility to open its arms to women in golf.
For the first time, Payne hesitated in reply. Then he mentioned that the club had contributed “tens of millions of dollars” to the game that benefited both men’s and women’s golf.
“The rest of that may be a membership kind of issue,” Payne said. He tilted his head to one side and made an expression that could have been interpreted as an apologetic smile. Then Billy Payne leaned forward and said:
“As you know, that is subject to the private deliberations of the members.”