AUGUSTA, GA—For many years Augusta National Golf Club opted for a very private role with the outside golf community. Yes, the club would annually host the first major of the year with The Masters but the desire to keep itself sequestered away was a clear signal the club wanted only to impact elements within its property line. That changed noticeably with the ascension of Billy Payne to the role as Masters Chairman when he replaced Hootie Johnson on May 5, 2006.
William Porter Payne—known to all as Billy—came into the role with a clear track record of success. Payne played the lead role in securing Atlanta as the host site for the ’96 Summer Olympics. What was viewed by many as a pipe dream was anything but when the Georgia-born native made it clear his desire to do what many did not see as doable.
The 68-year-old presents an interesting mixture of styles. At times Payne conveys the stereotypical good ole boy—the quick smile and the aw-shucks persona. On the flip side, a very smart and long term thinker—responsible in widening the influence of Augusta National and, at the same time, thrusting himself as a powerful voice within golf globally.
The former University of Georgia football player has a tough exterior and is not prone to being bullied. When outside voices clamored for the club to finally accept women into the male bastion it was Payne who said resolutely the club itself would determine the time line and not anyone else. On August 20, 2012, Augusta National offered invitations which were accepted by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier and philanthropist Darla Moore.
In former times, Augusta National had kept its television exposure in a similar manner. Payne concluded a new television deal with ESPN for 1st and 2nd round coverage, along with expanded coverage of the annual par-3 event which precedes the main Championship on Wednesday of tournament week.
Another initiative has been the creation in 2013 of the Drive, Chip & Putt event which invites junior golfers to compete for the wherewithal to compete in the finals at Augusta National on the Sunday prior to the start of The Masters. If someone had said juniors would be part of the scene at the previously reclusive Augusta National the likely response would have been nothing short of clear amazement. Payne partnered with the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association to create a clear program in attempting to grow the game given golf’s unenthusiastic appeal with Millennials thus far.
Payne has also used his clear bully pulpit to hold the feet to the fire on golf’s top echelon players. During his 2010 annual press conference which precedes The Masters, Payne scolded Tiger Woods for his off-course behavior and failure to act appropriately given his stature in the game. Not all within golf were keen to embrace Billy’s new role as moral enforcer given the club’s sluggish inability to welcome African-Americans as both contestants and members for many years—as well as on the female side of the gender aisle.
During his reign as Chairman, Payne has also been a prime proponent for the creation of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship which started in 2009 and which provided the eventual winner a spot in The Masters. Six years later a similar initiative was created with the kick-off of the Latin America Amateur Championship. For many, many years Augusta National has been keen to observe the global golf scene and offer invitations to The Masters. Players such as Greg Norman came onto the American golf scene when the club saw fit to invite The Great White Shark to the 1981 Masters where he would eventually finish 4th.
When Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics in ’96 there was wide speculation if golf returned to the Games Augusta National would serve as host for the event. That never happened, although golf will be part of the program when the Summer Olympics are played this August in Rio de Janeiro. Payne has been a supporter of golf being a part of the Games and clearly the club’s active involvement with events beyond the USA indicates a desire to influence the debate and approach that will be taken by many of the key golf organizations throughout the planet.
Payne has seen fit to broaden leverage of a club that for many years hunkered away from outside activities. The Masters Chairman has also seen fit to broaden outreach efforts to corporate sponsors with a new village area adjacent to the club. Payne’s reign is far from over. By building various alliances and clear financial contributions to various golf efforts it is Payne who is orchestrating a front row seat for Augusta National that just years ago would have been out of its milieu. The former Georgia Bulldog is clearly demonstrating a tenacity befitting his alma mater’s namesake.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.