By Julian Linden
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Two years after Augusta National Golf Club finally agreed to allow women to join its membership, the club's chairman hinted he would vote to support a move to include female members to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
Recognized as the spiritual home of golf and guardian of the rules of the game since 1754, St Andrews has come under increasing fire for excluding women members.
But things could finally change in September when the club's 2,500 members will decide whether to open its doors to everyone after operating as a men-only institution for 260 years.
The vote comes just two years after Augusta National, the home of the Masters, finally ended its all-male policy by admitting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore as members.
And now Payne, who oversaw the decision to let women join Augusta National, gave a clear indication on Wednesday of how he would vote when the secret ballot takes place later this year.
"Well, I'm proud to be a member of the R&A and I bet you can guess how I'm going to vote," he told a news conference on the eve of the 78th Masters.
"Other than that, I would respect their process, their requirement to conduct a vote, and so the process will culminate in a decision.
"And as I've said, I know where one vote is going to be cast."
Augusta National's membership policy had been an issue for years, triggering protests from the National Council of Women's Organizations and even criticism from President Barack Obama.
Augusta's invitation-only membership has been steeped in secrecy since the club opened in 1933. It was not until 1990 that Augusta National invited its first black member and until 2012, women were only allowed to play the course if invited by a male member.
"As I've said before, we readily and joyously welcomed our lady members when that happened a couple years ago," Payne said.
"It remains a very good decision on our part. We are so delighted, and I know I speak for everyone, that they are members."
(Reporting by Julian Linden, editing by Gene Cherry)