by Jeff Skinner
The fascination with The Masters and Augusta National grows deeper each year. Watching that tournament each spring feeds the imagination of any golfer worth their Titleists. Doesn’t it get better each year?
Some will say that Bubba Watson’s victory was anti-climatic and indeed he wasn’t really challenged on the closing nine. But there were aspects of this Masters that still made it a memorable one. And while The Masters cherishes its traditions like no other tournament there is plenty of change going on at Augusta National.
This year the most visible and significant change took place on the Sunday before the Masters when Augusta National hosted the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championships. The 88 boys and girls and their families were afforded the opportunity to spend the day on the most hallowed of golf grounds as they competed in their respective categories. It was one of the most exciting days in Augusta’s history.
The man mainly responsible for hosting the competition was Augusta National’s Chairman Billy Payne. Well, he’s probably responsible for just about everything that goes on at the club. And from an outsider’s point of view, Augusta National couldn’t be in better hands.
To look at Billy Payne you could easily be mistaken by stereotyping him as one of those old, rich, white guys that inhabit Augusta National and figures the old ways are the best ways. And you would be right, almost.
Certainly Mr. Payne fits the traditional stereotype of an Augusta National member. He is white and he is wealthy having made a fair dollar in real estate. But old? He’s 66 and age is relative. Stuck in the past? Old ways the best way? Not a chance, not this chairman, not Billy Payne.
Billy Payne is a Georgia boy through and through. He was born in Athens, Ga. Graduated from the University of Georgia made his money in Georgia and was the man responsible for bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta. He is a mover and a shaker and a very powerful man outside of Augusta National. Inside Augusta National is the man.
Since Payne took over from Hootie Johnson in 2006 things have changed at Augusta. Johnson will be remembered for his stonewalling of Martha Burke and her movement to get women admitted to Augusta National. Johnson’s not so diplomatic response to Burke was that Augusta will admit women when they want ”but that timetable will be ours and not at the point of a bayonet.”
Although Payne wears the same green jacket as Johnson, his is cut from a different cloth. Payne is a progressive in a green jacket. He has instituted so many radical changes at Augusta that he can be considered a revolutionary. Billy Payne, Augusta National’s Designated Revolutionary and he gets things done.
Since he has taken command The Masters has expanded its television coverage and signed its ESPN early round deal. He instituted the Junior Patrons Program where a child, 8-16 gets into The Master for free with any badge holder. He did the unthinkable when he licensed the use of Augusta National in the Tiger Woods video game. Of course their profits from the game goes towards their youth golf program. It isn’t about making money at Augusta, they have enough from CBS thankfully.
Payne has embraced the new media and the Masters home page and website are cutting edge and improve each year. He was critical in starting the Asia-Pacific Amateur and the Latin American Amateur. And Payne broke down the membership walls when Augusta National added two women members in Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore.
Payne’s biggest passion is the familiar cry of “growing the game” and he put his money where his mouth was when he opened up Augusta as the host of the Drive, Chip and Putt. He called that Sunday, “one of the most powerful days in my life.” That from a man that rules the most exclusive and powerful membership in the land.
Payne has a passion for growing this game and he has one of the most powerful seats at the table.
At each Masters Augusta National looks the same: decked out with all the azaleas, flowers and perfectly manicured layout. But that club isn’t the same club it was a few years ago. There are changes going on, significant, progressive changes. And Billy Payne is responsible.
For decades nothing changed except the champion’s dinner menu. But Billy Payne has started a revolution of change at Augusta National. He’s Billy Payne, Chairman Augusta National, a green jacketed revolutionary.