With the announcement that Billy Payne will step down in October as chairman of Augusta National, here is one man’s ranking of his top five memorable moments in that role:
- Announcing first women members at Augusta National. Five years ago last Sunday there came the news release that two new members had been added to the flock. This is a place that normally would rather discuss azalea petal blight than its membership, but this was a special case.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina businesswoman Darla Moore became the first green-jacketed women. After a contentious decade of calls for the club to drop its all-male membership policy – led by the bombastic Martha Burk – the gender debate was silenced.
Rae’s Creek did not run dry. The ancient oak behind the clubhouse did not tip over in shock. Life at Augusta National blissfully carried on.
Payne consistently has argued against this being any sort of extraordinary move. In a 2013 interview he noted that bringing in Rice and Moore was “nothing more than the manifestation of doing the right thing when we wanted to do it.”
Payne did not arrive at this breakthrough overnight – it came more than six years into his chairmanship. Despite his protests, the addition of women members (now numbering three at last count) at Augusta National forever will occupy the first sentence of the golfing part of his long resume.
- Modernization and construction. Payne likes to build stuff. See 1996, Centennial Olympics. Unlike so many of the Olympic venues in Atlanta, the building around Augusta National has more a sense of permanence.
The champions got a nice, renovated locker room. All the players got a new 18-acre practice facility (originally envisioned by Payne’s predecessor Hootie Johnson). The media got a new mansion in which to compose its odes. The swells got a fancy hospitality area off No. 5.
For a tournament billed as a tradition unlike any other, they went all cutting edge at the Masters. They began experimenting with broadcasting in 3D and 4K, whatever that is.
And, most important for everyone with just regular televisions, they began loosening up a bit on the Masters broadcast window, in 2011 adding an hour of coverage on Thursday and Friday. ESPN began televising Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest. (Memo to the new guy: Add even more on-air time; the audience is nowhere near the saturation point).
- Enlarging the club’s footprint. In the past couple of years, Augusta National has spread like a middle-aged waistline. The club recently closed a deal to buy a sliver of Augusta Country Club to both gain a little more privacy and to give itself the option of expanding the par-5 13th hole if it suits a need. That’s someone else’s call now. Is a longer 13th coming? “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask that question of Fred (Ridley, the next chairman). We have exhaustively studied options, all the statistics. As time evolves, now that we have the real estate to what he decides,” Payne said.
The club bought up homes and businesses, rerouted roads and completely redesigned a huge area to the north to carve out a free parking landscape used one week of the year.
You do not want to be the stump in the path of any bulldozer driven by the chairman.
- Grow golf initiative. In 2014, the first Drive, Chip and Putt national finals for kids 7 to 15 was held at Augusta National the Sunday before Masters week. A year earlier, a mere 14-year-old, Tianlang Guan, got in the Masters by winning the Augusta National-inspired Asia-Pacific Championship. It was Payne’s objective to plant seeds of golf with new generations and upon new continents.
“We have been fairly active in that area. I’m not sure we have enough time, members or staff to have done much more over that same period of time than we did,” Payne said. “Part of the mandate that we all receive – me specifically as chairman – is the love and passion for the game of golf that our founders had.”
- Lecturing Tiger Woods. It was after Woods had his philandering meltdown in late 2009 that Payne used his 2010 pre-Masters news conference to declare that the four-time tournament champion had “disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids.
“Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children,” Payne said in an extraordinary criticism coming from a pulpit that usually reveres its champions.
Reaction was mixed. Critics would find it all just a little patronizing. Other issues have overcome Woods since, and he has missed three of the past four Masters.
The outgoing chairman wants him back. “I can tell you Tiger and I are friends, and I have been very supportive of him, very hopeful for a return,” Payne said Tuesday.
“I want him to play. Of course I want him to play.”