What the Masters does is preserve the code. The PGA Tour money folk, left to their own devices, would chase every last dollar until the Tour fell into the NASCAR/NBA/NFL/WWE abyss. (Exhibit A: the 44 corporate logos in the Tour media guide.) The Masters reminds us of the importance of gracious losers, replaced divots, hushed spectators-the actual game. That’s why the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club (along with the game’s dominant player at any given time and very few other people) is one of golf’s most influential figures. Every April trees bud, the clubs come out, we turn on CBS and fall for the whole thing again, the grace and beauty and athleticism. We actually like the knot in our stomach that makes us want to heave our lunch, even if it’s all vicarious. Your grandmother doesn’t watch the Honda Classic, but she watches the Masters, right?
And now the Masters has a new chairman, William Porter Payne, last seen in public running the Atlanta Olympics in the muggy summer of 1996. He is only the sixth boss man at the club. First there was Clifford Roberts (1934-76), protector of the Bobby Jones legacy, a taciturn purist who put the Masters on CBS chiefly to bring a great game to more people-and to bring more glory to the club and its members. Roberts was succeeded by Bill Lane, a Texas gent who died after overseeing just two tournaments. Then came Hord Hardin (1980-91), an autocrat with a tin ear. He was followed by the affable Jackson Stephens (1991-98). And then came the chairman whose name you most likely know, William (Hootie) Johnson (1998-2006), the only radical ever to hold the position, who changed the course, the tournament and the world’s perception of the club. He handpicked his successor, Billy Payne, a 59-year-old Georgian who is as courtly as Johnson was (at times) bombastic. Google Martha Burk and Hootie, if you can stand to revisit that whole thing.
Even though it’s part-time, seasonal work for no pay, Payne, a lawyer by training, has landed himself a huge job. (By day he’s a managing director of Gleacher Partners, a financial advisory company owned by Eric Gleacher, who for years was a prominent USGA committeeman.) Payne has to reclaim Augusta’s past-as an oasis of civility, something lost, some would say, in the Hootie years. He has to prepare for a future in which television coverage aimed at the guy in his lounger, which made the Masters the Masters, goes the way of the wooden driver. And he has to keep the high purpose alive.
You may want to know: Is he of golf? Payne didn’t grow up with the game. But then came the decade and change he spent first trying to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, then running the Games. “During that time golf became my therapy,” Payne said, using a modern word early in a recent interview while wearing a contemporary cut of the club’s famous green sport coat (shoulders lightly padded, darted chest). He was sitting in the Augusta National office he inherited from Johnson, Bobby Jones staring at him by way of a portrait painted by Dwight Eisenhower and beloved by Cliff Roberts. Payne is the first chairman who didn’t know Roberts or Jones.
As a fledgling golfer during his Olympic years, Payne’s method amounted to hitting the ball hard and chasing after it. He was maybe a 95 shooter, though keeping score or playing 18 holes was seldom a goal. Now he’s a seven handicapper who can play scratch golf or bogey golf, depending on the day. Gleacher says you want Payne on your team: He drives it long and in play, he putts well, and he plays to win.
A native of Atlanta, Payne was raised in a football house. His father, Porter, was a football star at Georgia, and Billy was too, an end who played both ways. Still, the legend of Jones reached him. “I knew him to be the true Southern gentleman,” Payne said, “a man of gentility and compassion.” Jones and Roberts were still on the scene when Payne first came to the Masters as a Georgia sophomore, on one of his first dates with the former Martha Beard, now his wife of 38 years (and the mother of their two children). He made the 85-mile drive from Athens to Augusta in a pink Chevy coupe that he borrowed from his sister, two tickets from a fraternity brother in his pocket. It was 1967. He can’t recall who won. (It was Gay Brewer.) What he does remember are Arnold Palmer’s massive forearms. Payne was a big man himself then, 6’2″ and 230 pounds. He’s still solid but 30 pounds lighter, thanks to a regimen of 90 minutes in the gym, working out alone, seven days a week. His father died of heart failure at 53. Payne’s been down the heart-bypass road, and now his cholesterol level is 130. Augusta National, not the most modern of clubs, finally has a gym with the requisite machines. Payne had it installed shortly after being named chairman last May.
Payne said he doesn’t expect the club to make many changes to the course in the immediate future. “Right now we’ve caught up to the technology, and maybe we’re a little ahead,” he said. It’s a different course now than it was pre-Hootie. Jones and Roberts, and their architect, Alister MacKenzie, used the wide-open playing fields of St. Andrews as their inspiration. Augusta used to look as broad as it did long, and practically the whole thing was playable. It felt linksy. In the Hootie years, the course grew from a listed 6,925 yards to 7,445. The fairways were defined for the first time by growing a modest rough, called the second cut. About 125 mature trees were planted, many of them in key strategic spots. “It’s much more of a parkland course now,” says Tom Doak, an architect. “The Masters now plays much more like a U.S. Open.” Recovering out of the second cut with the modern ball, harder and longer than the balata ball Palmer won with, players can’t stop shots, and there are fewer Sunday-afternoon eagle putts made, once among the tournament’s hallmarks.
This year, the 11th fairway will be six to eight yards wider than it was last year and three trees near the landing area have been removed. Maybe that’s what Payne will do, chip away at some of the changes made by his predecessor, who was also his boss for a while at NationsBank (now Bank of America). The real question is whether Payne would ever eliminate the rough, which Geoff Shackelford, a MacKenzie biographer, calls “offensive to anyone who reveres the vision of MacKenzie and Jones.” It seems unlikely, but Payne, whose on-course play is long and bold, can make the bold off-course move too.
In 1992, long before he was an Augusta member or even a serious golfer, Payne had the idea that golf should be on the program for the ’96 Summer Games and played at Augusta National, another way to show off Georgia’s beauty. He quickly got chairman Stephens and the club on board, even though the course is closed during the summer. Others weren’t so easily swayed. “I advised [Payne] that the golfers had not expressed a great desire to participate and that it was about three years too late,” Anita DeFrantz, an Olympics official, said recently, referring to an IOC requirement that a sport be listed on the official program seven years before the Games are played. Then there was a far more serious political problem: DeFrantz and a city councilman, Bill Campbell, who later became Atlanta’s mayor (and who like DeFrantz is African-American), among others in powerful positions, didn’t think Augusta National was an appropriate venue for an Olympic sport since the club had no women members, no Asian members and only one African-American member, Ron Townsend, who was rushed into the club after the 1990 Shoal Creek affair. “Billy said, ‘But we’d have women playing the course, and we would be watched by the whole world,'” DeFrantz recalled. “He truly believed it was the right thing to do.” But Payne said that he saw “that Bill Campbell was making things uncomfortable.” He folded his hand and never looked back. Evidently the club was not put off by the attempt; Payne was invited to join Augusta National shortly after the Olympics concluded.
A decade later, Payne is the chairman of Augusta National and Bill Campbell is in federal prison for tax evasion, although there is no indication that this is something Payne even thinks about, much less considers a point of vindication. That would violate Payne’s Southern code. “He’s as much an old-fashioned Southern gentleman as a young man can be,” says Furman Bisher, a sports columnist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who first began covering the Masters, and its chairmen, in 1950.
But Payne is living in modern times. On his watch, an American of Asian descent joined the club, believed to be the first such member. Payne is a scratch talker and an open thinker, skilled at public relations. A reporter looking for names of people who’ll talk about Payne was offered, through a spokesman, a varied list: Chris Price, the minister at St.Luke’s, Payne’s Presbyterian church in Atlanta; the legendary Vince Dooley, Payne’s football coach at Georgia; Brian Roberts, the chairman of Comcast. “When Billy asks you about your wife,” says Roberts, “he really means it.”
Roberts is a multimedia guy and so is Payne. He spends a lot of his time thinking about how to bring the Masters to more people in new ways. This year at masters.org there will be live video coverage of the tournament during the hour before the TV broadcast begins, plus live streaming video from the driving range and the interview room, among other places, for much of the day. It excites Payne to think about the millions of people in China and India and Africa who could be exposed to golf as it is played at the Masters.
It’s a tricky thing, what Payne wants to pull off. Frank Chirkinian, the famously innovative former producer of the Masters telecast for CBS, has described the tournament as great theater on the world’s most beautiful stage, with amazing characters and an unknown outcome. For years it has been delicious. Too many lay-up shots out of the rough could kill the delicate balance of brawn and touch that made the thing so special in the first place. Too much exposure could too. The Internet is many things, but grand it’s not. The future of the tournament, and the way a new generation is introduced to the game, to some significant degree rests in Payne’s hands. He says that making good decisions is all about having a vision, listening well and “surrounding yourself with a good team.” Clifford Roberts would never have said it that way, but he would have thought it. The new guy has the same mandate that Roberts did. Billy Payne’s not trying to sell a thing-except a great game, a spring golf tournament and the club that hosts it.