Obsessed with the experience, Billy Payne grew the Masters into a global event

August 24, 2017

Augusta National is a funny place. In death, Clifford Roberts, one of the club’s co-founders, was named “Chairman in Memoriam.” In 1966, when he was ill but still very much alive, Bobby Jones, the other founder, was named “President in Perpetuity.” These titles pale in comparison to the honorifics handed out at your local Masonic Hall (like Grand Sword Bearer!) but they’re pretty nifty. Now comes a third title, and it should be retired.

Billy Payne, who announced on Wednesday that he is stepping down as chairman of Augusta National after 11 years, has a new title borrowed from the college green: Chairman Emeritus.

It’s quite a title, one Payne shared with Hootie Johnson, his friend and predecessor, who died on July 14. Hootie, as chairman, devoted his Augusta energies to the course, while infamously keeping the membership all-male. In Johnson’s tenure, from 1998 to 2006, hundreds of trees were planted and they were not cosmetic, the course was lengthened by hundreds of yards and the fairways were defined for the first time by strips of rough that were (and are) little more than circa 1977 shag carpeting.     

Then came Payne. He made everything on the perimeter of the course his priority. He was obsessed—there’s no other word—with the spectator experience, the player experience and the member experience. He vastly improved tournament parking, brought in several women members, expanded the dining and business entertaining options, built a vast driving range and practice facility, increased the number of on-campus beds significantly, improved security, successfully enforced (defying the demands of modern culture) a no-cellphone policy and has built a media center that is far closer to the Taj Mahal than a traditional press tent. It’s one thing to have money (and the club seems to rolling in it). It’s another to spend it with taste.

He had the vision thing, too, to use the phrase his fellow member, Condi Rice, might have heard from her former boss, George W. Bush. Payne ushered in the Drive, Chip & Putt competition and played a central role in creating two significant amateur competitions, the Latin American and the Asian-Pacific Amateur Championships. (The winner of each gets a an invitation to play in the following Masters—provided the player has stayed amateur! Payne was the first club chairman who did not know Jones but he venerated Jones’s commitment to amateurism.)

Payne also oversaw the recent purchase of land from the adjacent Augusta Country Club. He hired marketing and sales people from leading American companies, and was happy to pay for their skills, though they’d work in almost complete anonymity. The club, under Payne, seems to prize continuity and tradition, but it is as wired, in every sense, as any Google campus. Billy Payne may not have a Twitter account, but he has found a way to get his messianic message out: the game is great; give it a try.     

Payne, a lawyer by training, is an entrenched figure in Atlanta’s real estate, banking and legal communities. He’s a politician, but he’s more than that. He had the ability, as chairman, to get all manner of talented people-his deeply accomplished fellow members-to complete any task he asked. It was a measure of the man’s charisma that they happily jumped to the sound of his whistle. In that sense, his first public job, was an important and necessary warm-up act.     

Payne spearheaded the movement to bring the ’96 Olympics to Atlanta. The Olympics is a TV show, a spectacle, an athletic event at its core but of course much more than that. Payne could see that marketing, corporate and network support play an immeasurable role in making the Olympics what it is. He took that to Augusta. He came to the club with outsized vision for what the Masters could be, and made the Masters an event, not a golf tournament.

He is not a man steeped in the game and its nuances. Changes to the course have not been smack-dab in his wheelhouse. Enter his successor, Fred Ridley, 65, a longtime Augusta National member and the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion. Ridley, since 2011 the chairman of the tournament’s competition committee, will surely oversee changes to the course—or “improvements,” as Cliff Roberts preferred to call them. The 13th hole is likely to be lengthened by 25 or so yards and the par-4 fifth hole is expected to undergo a significant redesign, with a new tee and green. Other holes will likely be lengthened.     

Ridley, a Tampa real-estate lawyer, was president of the USGA in 2004 and ’05 and was an active USGA committeeman through the 1990s, when every aspect of the game’s equipment went through a radical change. There has been talk for years about the Masters being the one tournament that could require the players to play with a restricted-flight ball. If any Masters chairman would have the standing in the game to make such a thing happen, Ridley would be the man. It seems like a pipe dream, but, then, Augusta National has special standing in the game. Consider the cellphone policy.     

Payne was so focused on growing the tournament and the game that the actual tournaments played under his watch are not a significant part of his legacy. His first Masters as chairman was 2007, when Zach Johnson won. His last Masters as chairman was the 2016 tournament, won memorably by Sergio Garcia. In general the 10 Green Jackets he handed out came at tournaments that did not sparkle and shine as so many of the great Masters of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s did. Payne didn’t have Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as contenders (although he had them as honorary starters). Tiger Woods never won during his years.

Payne’s tenure is notable if you think bigger is better. He made the Masters, and the international standing of the club, far bigger. Its reach has never been more global. Ridley’s job in that regard will be, at a minimum, to maintain that status quo, through the Latin American and Asian amateur events, through national and international broadcast contracts, through other forms of media. But his main focus will surely be the show—the four days of golf in mid-April. If Fred Ridley can get the course where it needs to be, today’s community of golfers might speak of Rory McIlory and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas as Payne and his gang thought of the original Big Three going back to the ‘60s.

The greatness of the Masters is many things, but first-and-foremost it is the course and the players upon it. Payne was a spectacular, visionary salesman. Ridley is different. He’s a golf guy, through and through.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com