When Billy Payne was extended an invitation to join Augusta National in 1997, the lifelong Georgian was moved to tears upon opening the letter. A decade later, based largely on the fact that he was the man behind bringing the 1996 Olympics to his hometown of Atlanta, he's the chairman of the club and the Masters. Payne is the sixth man to hold the post at the club, and the first with no direct ties to Augusta's co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. In some ways Payne, 59, is similar to his predecessor Hootie Johnson. Both played college football and both have had heart trouble, but interviewing the quiet Johnson was work, while Payne needs no provocation to start talking (just don't ask him what kind of car he drives).
To an outsider this job would seem pretty easy for a guy who spearheaded an entire Olympic Games. Is that true?
It's different. I've said before that when I came up with the Olympics idea in February of '87. It began with a conversation between me and my wife [Martha]. We were all doing something for the very first time. This is very different in that I inherited a terrific staff with very capable leadership. They know their jobs, and I've been fortunate to be associated with them over the last six months. My job is to lead and inspire them to think even bigger and perform on an even higher level. It's a terrifically talented group.
You've said you played golf to relax while working on those Olympics. What's your favorite thing about being a member at Augusta?
That's easy. I've said since the first day that the greatest joy I've received, starting my 10th year, is the joy and happiness I bring to my friends when I bring them over here to play. To see the looks on their faces, it's like being Santa Claus.
What was your reaction when you were invited to join? Did you have the same look on your face?
I wasn't expecting it. It came out of the blue. I mean, I was speechless. I think I received a letter closely followed by a conversation with our then-chairman Jack Stephens. I had more than a few tears in eyes, I'll tell you that.
Have you had to change your life much as chairman, like setting up camp in Augusta or watching more of The Golf Channel?
They let me stay on the property when I'm here. Over the summer I was probably here 2 1/2 days a week, driving back and forth from Atlanta. Just by coincidence I bought a new car the same week I was named chairman. It now has 11,000 miles on it.
What kind of car?
It's a little coupe.
What kind of coupe?
I'd rather not say.
You mentioned in your first press conference as chairman that the club might soon change the rules to allow winners automatic entry into the tournament again. [From 1972 through 1999, PGA Tour tournament winners over the past 12 months automatically qualified for the Masters, but the club changed the rule in 2000 to place more emphasis on the World Ranking.] Is that still on the table?
Yes, sir, it is. I remember growing up and being a television fan of golf and the great thrill of someone winning a tournament — even when they were presented their check they were more excited by the fact that they were going to get to play in the Masters. Certainly this year we'll be prepared to make a definitive decision, and it's safe to say my support of making that change is steadfast. We're just trying to work out the details.
What about adding a woman member? You get asked about that a lot by media, but has it come up among the members lately?
No, sir, not to my knowledge, and as you know we take the position and have historically that all matters that relate to the club itself are private and we just don't talk about them.
We've heard the course will be shorter, not longer, this year. True?
No. I don't think shorter. The tees on numbers 11 and 15 were 13 yards long, and the average of the other tees is 20 yards, so we extended the fronts of those an additional 7 yards for consistency and to give us flexibility with wet conditions or adverse winds.
Don't you think that by adding all those yards in recent years the club has not Tiger-proofed the course but made it so no one but Tiger and Phil can win?
I really don't think so. I think all the guys on the Tour now are hitting the ball so far, principally as a consequence of the technological advancements. While the absolute longest hitters have second shots that are shorter, this course continues to put the premium on accuracy and putting. It was the right thing to do at the right time to reestablish shot values so they wouldn't be hitting lob wedge into all par 4s.
What's the status on having a tournament ball?
I think with some current research going on by the USGA and the PGA Tour, with the fact that the average rate of increase in the drives decreased in the last year, the emphasis on the ball has decreased a bit. Nevertheless, we're going to take whatever steps are required to keep our course competitive and challenging and keep the Masters one of the great grand slam events on the Tour.
Have you given any consideration, or will you give any, to having Gary McCord back on the air?
You know CBS picks the talent. We have not had that discussion, and I haven't had that consideration because the thought has not even occurred to me.
What's your best score on the course?
Wow! We didn't know you were so good.
Every now and then — I had a 75 last Sunday. For an old man, an ex-football player whose neck hurts all the time... I'm the rule, rather than the exception for 60-year-old ex-football players.
What position did you play?
Defensive end at Georgia. The tackling techniques they taught back then were different then than they are now.
What's one thing that bugs you about Augusta?
That it was 26 degrees this morning, and people were waiting in line to tee off with their guests and weren't able to do so until about 10 o'clock.