AUGUSTA, Ga. A year ago Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne drew international headlines and the ire of more than a few columnists when he used the occasion of his annual meeting with the media to chide Tiger Woods for his "egregious" extramarital behavior. Today, in his 2011 powwow with the press, Payne's mood was markedly peppier as he discussed the Masters field size, the tournament's new ticket policy, and the club's technological advancements.
Payne fielded just one question about Woods, regarding the club's decision to partner with EA Sports on a video game bearing Woods's name. The chairman was evasive, saying "we continue to believe Tiger is one of the greatest golfers of all time, and we hoped and prayed that his comeback would go forward in a very positive way."
A splashy video game is just one of many ways in which the club is pushing the technological envelope. The club unveiled a Masters iPad app last week, and the Masters' revamped website now offers nine live video feeds from the course, including one feed from the practice range. Payne said the website's clean, uncluttered look is by design. "It's a completely different approach to the Internet that I hope is well received," he said. "I think it's consistent with what Augusta has meant to so many people for so many years."
Earlier this week the club announced that it is opening up a lottery on its website for a limited number of daily tournament tickets starting in 2012. Payne refused to reveal specifically how many tickets would be made available. "A significant number," he said. "We all talked about it and we decided that's the word we wanted to use significant."
He added that the club is accustomed to receiving hundreds of thousands of requests "the old, simple mail it in way." Which means you might have better odds of winning a golden ticket to visit the Chocolate Factory than you will of scoring a Masters badge via an online lottery.
"It's not a real good chance, but it's a chance," Payne said, smiling. "And it's easy to apply; you don't have to go to the post office."
Payne was also asked about the 99-player field, which is the largest number of Masters starters since 1966. "One of the reasons is we have had a little bit of an anomaly in that we have had 10 players this year who qualified only by virtue of winning a PGA Tour event, and that compares to four or five in the prior several years," Payne said.
Fred Ridley, chairman of the club's competition committees, elaborated: "We have an issue with daylight obviously right now. Our pace of play is four hours and 38 minutes, but we all know from past observations that it's longer than that."
"We are getting pretty close to the maximum field," Ridley said.
This year's competitors will play a course that weathered a violent thunderstorm Monday night, ripping up trees and scattering branches and debris all over the manicured fairways.
"Obviously it was a concern," Payne said. "We all were awakened about 3 o'clock in the morning, and the storm, as it was all over the county here, Richmond County, was truly horrible. We began assessing the damage immediately. Within less than an hour, we had hundreds of people out here, not only assessing, but already beginning the cleanup.
There was no permanent damage to the course, just "a little difficulty on the 8th green but it's been fixed," Payne said. "I was told by one of the players yesterday that they couldn't tell that it had ever been damaged. So I think we are in pretty good shape."
That's not the case along Magnolia Lane, where the storm downed one of the 61 historic magnolias that line the road. "We were all very much saddened by that, and we will make the best out of a difficult situation," Payne said, speaking sullenly as if he had just a lost a loved one.
"I'm a little surprised it wasn't replaced in the first half-hour," defending champion Phil Mickelson joked Tuesday. "I don't understand what happened. I think Chairman Payne must have been sleeping."
"One hundred-fifty year old magnolias are in short supply," Payne said