Augusta National chairman Billy Payne wants to ‘grow the game,’ and nothing helps that goal more than a great Masters

April 10, 2014

AUGUSTA, Ga. — There’s a Jamaican waiter at the Augusta Country Club named Michael who pours coffee with that casual heymon English that makes it sounds like a party is about the break out. That’s convenient right about now, because a party is about to break out. Some digital clock somewhere can tell you how close we are to the opening blows.

“That’s my dream, mon, to get to see the Masters,” Michael the waiter said when he found out my day job gets me through a hole in the fence. He knows all about the fence.

“I play the Country Club on Mondays, and when you get to nine you look through that fence and there it is, Amen Corner. That’s my dream, mon, to play Augusta National.” That’s two dreams in two paragraphs, if you’re keeping score at home, two dreams on any golfer’s ultimate wish list.

Michael has been playing golf for only four years and he can already break 80. He’s got the bug bad. (“It’s my therapy,” he said.) He’s figured out quickly what all of us golf fans figure out, sooner or later: there’s watching the game and there’s playing the game and the two are inextricably linked.

That’s what the Masters does, whether you’re on the course (lucky me), near it (Michael, for now), or some in faraway place where your local course is still thawing out. The Masters commands your attention and gets you in the mood to play.

The U.S. Open is the ultimate test of golfing skill and the British Open is the ultimate test of golfing manliness but the Masters is more important — more lovely, more inviting — than either. The annual April tournament belongs as much to Michael the Jamaican waiter as it does to Adam the Australian golfer.

Listening to Billy Payne talk Wednesday morning, you got the feeling that Augusta National’s activist chairman prizes one phrase above all others: grow the game. Hence, the Asia-Pacific Amateur, the Latin American Amateur and the new kids event, the Drive, Chip & Putt. Responding to a question, Payne talked about the possibility of a future African Amateur.

But nothing can help Payne pursue his grow-the-game goal like putting on a great tournament. This year, there will be no horrible ruling disputes (we hope). The course should play firm-and-fast. You could make a list of two dozen players you could easily imagine winning. Without Tiger Woods in the field, and given that Phil Mickelson hasn’t won this year, the whole thing feels more like a free-for-all. Which is great.

Woods is intense and while you can surely say the Masters this year is a lesser event without him, it is also a more relaxed one. “It’s weird not having him here, isn’t it?” Phil Mickelson said the other day. It is. Mark Steinberg conferring with Justin Rose’s caddie seems more like a chat. Mark Steinberg conferring with Steve Williams (back in the day) looked like a summit meeting. I never saw the chairman looked more relaxed. I’m not attributing that to Woods’ absence, at all, but right now he’s got everything where he wants it.

The weather forecast is perfect. He’s overseen the construction of a series of buildings with eating, watching and merchandizing in mind and they look like they belong. The course was improved by the ice storms, thinned out, slightly closer to what it was in its wide-open youth. He opened the club to women. He has opened the tournaments to amateurs from Asia and Latin America. He has Michael the waiter and Michael the sportswriter and bunches of others right where he wants them, and right where we want to be: watching and dreaming, watching and dreaming.