The Grand Pooh-bah of an exclusive golf club is stepping down. As high-profile transitions go, this won’t traumatize the sports world or anybody who lives in the real world, most of whom see Augusta National only as a fence that borders the club on Washington Road, just down the street from a Hooters and a Knights Inn.
Not to diminish anything Billy Payne accomplished in his 11 years as head of Augusta National or the tournament it hosts, the Masters. He modernized and expanded technology on campus. He led the old boys clubs out of the 19th century by allowing girls into the treehouse. Suffrage would no longer be celebrated with weekly pig roasts.
But Payne’s legacy will be, and should be, tied more to bringing the Olympics to Atlanta, changing the landscape of downtown with Centennial Olympic Park and his family, including 11 grandchildren.
Being chairman of Augusta National is a great honor and unimaginable ego stroke for those who live in that upper-crust world. But for 51 weeks a year, the club disappears from our reality, like Atlantis sinking into the ocean. It’s not a venue there for all to see and enjoy through the year like a stadium, an arena or even the Giraffe Course at Mountasia.
As Payne would be the first to tell you, the Masters will still be the Masters with Fred Ridley in charge, just as it was with him running things. Even in the South, a Bulldog-to-Gator transition can be seamless.
Payne told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Steve Hummer of stepping down that being chairman is “an honor that no one should claim as permanent.”
He also said, “I wouldn’t grade myself other than to say I tried my best. I hope that people, principally the other members, are proud of what we were able to accomplish while I was chairman.”
The Olympics is the world’s great example of people coming together, regardless of race, religion, nationality, socio-economic class, politics or gender. Payne went from that to a world of exclusion at Augusta National. Credit to him for impacting change.
It did not come immediately. It did not come without some ugliness. But if he proved anything during his tenure, it was his ability to stomp out forest fires, most notably with the women issue.
I was there for Payne’s first state-of-Xanadu news conference before the 2007 Masters. His predecessor as chairman, Hootie Johnson, had responded to Martha Burk’s rhetoric about membership policies with his flame-throwing “point-of-a-bayonnet” remark.
Johnson stepped down as chairman in 2006, the same day as Porter Goss stepped down as head of the CIA. I’m still not sure that was a coincidence.
But whereas Johnson was getting heated on the topic of membership, Payne remained corporate cool. He even attempted a joke: “We don’t have a suggestion box.” (Smirks from green jackets in the back of the room.) Five years later, the subject was brought up 10 times at a press conference. Payne didn’t waver.
At one point when Payne was asked, “What would you tell your granddaughters?” he responded, “My conversations with my granddaughters are personal.”
What would you tell my daughter?
“I don’t know your daughter,” he said.
Payne was an offensive and defensive end at Georgia. He still had some moves in his 60s.
But at that point, he apparently was close enough to the edge. In the months that followed, Condoleeza Rice and Darla Moore became members. Virginia Rometty, the CEO at IBM, soon followed.
Three female members. Augusta National’s gender split isn’t quite on the level of the world’s population, but that talking point is dead.
Golf’s health is uncertain. There’s no shortage of great young players, like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. But the recent PGA Championship tanked on TV ratings. With Tiger Woods off the radar and other personalities of the sport fading or gone — and maybe just because golf moves too slow for today’s millennial viewer — fewer are watching.
But Payne oversaw significant initiatives to grow the game: the creation of two international amateur championships, whose winners get a free pass to the Masters. He also started golf’s version of the punt-pass-and-kick youth competition for youths.
If Payne had one misstep, it came in 2010. Woods was returning from exile when his personal life morphed into TMZ fodder, and Payne for some reason felt compelled to have his “tsk tsk” moment on stage at his annual Masters presser, reading a 284-word statement. Payne said Woods, “disappointed all of us.” That may have been true, but there was no need to say it, five months after Woods crashed into a tree.
But Payne leaves his chairmanship with no controversy looming. He can enjoy the club’s little tournament from the background now, in peace, free of brush fires and sportswriters. He’ll get high grades from those who pay attention.
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