Thursday, April 10, 2008

Drawing the Line Between Progressive and Inclusive

Billy Payne has done some very smart things as the Chairman at Augusta National. He expanded to provide online video coverage of the event, which I will be watching today. He made a switch to ESPN for television coverage of the par 3 contest and early rounds, in part, because ESPN was the international distributor for the event and their domestic sports coverage of events they broadcast is almost suffocating. Then he decided to allow 1 unticketed child aged 8-16 to come to the Masters with a badge holder. So far, so good, right?

Well, then you realize that Augusta National still does not have a female member. Then you hear the chatter about Mike Tirico's place in front of the camera as being historic. Don't forget that women do not appear on the Masters telecast, even though Judy Rankin would be a great choice and do way better than Bobby Clampett ever could in his time in the booth.

I find it curious then that Steve Elling errs on the side of calling what Billy Payne has done as being progressive instead of calling out the club for what they have not done as being exclusive...too exclusive perhaps.

No question, given the back story, typing the following words feels about as natural as putting porcupines in a room with blindfolded hemophiliacs:

Augusta National, the high-minded place that over the years has been hammered for its low-minded exclusionary policies, has become a beacon of progressivism.

Social cynics, hold your tongues. There's no punch line, because it's no joke.

In a master stroke of judgment, the club this year has opened its arms to a new generation, allowing anybody between the ages of 8-16 into the world's most famous tournament for free when accompanied by a badge holder.

Simple as it might sound, it will likely do more to change the public perception of the club than anything in its controversial history, and could stand as a seminal moment in keeping the foundering game afloat in the future.

To Steve's credit, he knows what he is saying is blasphemy before he even says it. Augusta National has not made social gains or become more progressive as a private club in terms of their membership practices. Despite that, I honestly do not feel that the move by Payne to admit children should be viewed cynically. I do feel that Billy Payne really wants to get kids involved in the game and that allowing them to come to the Masters (like kids can do across the Pond at the Open) will help the game. Still, Elling does note that this move will "appease" many. But who?

Who can forget the scene outside the club five years ago when militant feminists, self-promoting whack jobs and grandstanding social activists were circling the gates over its all-male membership policies. Years earlier, the club drew scathing critical fire over its lack of minority membership, eventually prompting a change in its admission policy.

This new policy should please and appease plenty. Over the winter, Payne sent letters to the Masters badge holders and attempted to gauge how many intended to bring a kid to one of the four tournament rounds. The feedback, he said, was remarkable.

Elling, though, does close on a key point that I have been harping on for months - the game is not growing.

Somebody needs to. For a decade at least, growth in the game has been nil. More courses have closed nationally over the past three years than have opened. For every player who picks up the game annually, another one quits. Kids from the video-game era have been hard to hook and retain. The sport is too dull, takes too long to play and is too darned hard. Greed has driven up greens fees and driven away potential players.

It needs a shot in the arm and there is not a new Tiger Woods on the horizon. This could help.

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