Augusta, Ga. — The chairman of Augusta National traditionally holds a news conference on the eve of the Masters, a time to probe into the minds of the men in green jackets without getting much in return.
Jack Stephens once was asked for an update on when the club might allow the front nine of the Masters to be televised.
"Progress is slow," Stephens said.
Question: Why is progress so slow? And what kind of discussions have you had with CBS?
"Well," Stephens said in his rich, Arkansas drawl, "progress is slow because we don't want it to happen."
Expect no less today when Hootie Johnson holds what figures to be the most highly charged press conference in the 67-year history of the Masters.
Tiger Woods is defending his title, but most of the media attention is on how Johnson will defend the all-male membership at perhaps the most famous golf club on Earth.
Johnson revealed more about Augusta National in his 932-word statement July 9 than he ever does during his Wednesday news conference.
It was that statement that set the vitriolic course for the membership debate, especially when Johnson said there may be a time when Augusta National Golf Club has a female member, but it will be on the club's timetable and "not at the point of a bayonet."
Don't look for him to bring a bayonet of his own today.
Johnson is expected to read a statement at the start of his press conference.
He probably will take some questions, hardly any of them about the canyon-sized bunker on No. 5 or whether Augusta plans to enlarge its driving range.
Where it goes from there is anyone's guess. But if tradition holds form -- and tradition is everything at the Masters -- the answers will not break any new ground.
Johnson indicated as much in 1999 during his first news conference as chairman.
Question: If you wouldn't mind telling us, how many African-Americans are there at Augusta National, and how many women members? And if there are no women members, why aren't there?
"Well, that's a club matter, ma'am, and all club matters are private," Johnson replied.
Club matters apparently go beyond who gets invited to join.
Johnson was asked a year later, after Arnold Palmer became the former champion to be a regular member, what the King shot in the annual club tournament.
|When: Thursday-Sunday.Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.Television: USA (Thursday-Friday, 4-6:30 p.m., 9-11:30 p.m.) and CBS (Saturday, 3:30-6:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30-7 p.m.).Last year: Tiger Woods won for the fourth time in six years.|
"We don't discuss member matters," he replied without even the hint of a smile.
It's all part of the privacy that shrouds Augusta National, no matter the issue, no matter the chairman, dating to Clifford Roberts when the Masters began in 1934.
Even some public topics are answered with few words, if that many, such as the time Stephens was asked about the cigar craze in 1998.
Question: Any thoughts on making part of the course, or all of the course, no smoking?
Stephens quietly removed a pack of Winstons and his cigarette lighter from his jacket and placed them on the table during a 1998 press conference.
"No sir," said Will Nicholson, chairman of the competition committees, for anyone who needed clarification. "We're not going to make it no smoking."
Another time, Stephens was grilled on the Masters' old policy of live television for only the back nine at Augusta National, how it robs a worldwide audience of the drama that can unfold over the first nine holes.
Question: Do you watch the Super Bowl?
"Fourth quarter," Stephens replied.
Johnson, as with other chairmen before him, will expound endlessly on the competition itself or constant changes to the golf course. He has defended some of his decisions, such as the letter he sent last year to three aging champions asking them to no longer play.
But there is always an out.
Question: What would you think of getting some past champions together on Wednesday morning for a competition?
"I would not think of it at all," Johnson said.
And why would that be?
"I don't have to give you a reason," he replied. "Mr. Roberts wouldn't give you a reason."
Augusta National, however, is not immune to change.
CBS began televising the front nine in 2000 when storm delays caused the leaders to tee off when its broadcast came on, and the Masters now features 18-hole TV coverage on the weekend.
"That just shows you persistence pays off," Johnson said last year. "We knew that there was a great demand for it, and we just decided that we ought to satisfy that demand."
In Johnson's first year as chairman in 1999, he ordered a second cut of rough and significantly altered three holes -- adding 25 yards on Nos. 2 and 17, and planting a cluster of trees on the par-5 15th to make it harder to reach the green in two.
Question: Why were these done now rather than last year or two years ago or two years down the road?
"Well, we just hadn't been comfortable in making them," Johnson said. "It just takes us a while to make up our minds."
That usually applies only to tournament issues, not membership issues.
And even if it did, Johnson wouldn't tell.