Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, gave his first State of the Masters press conference in the club’s new Taj Mahal press building today, and picked up where he left off last year and the year before that and the year before that, going back to 2007: the club will continue to seek to make improvements wherever the opportunity to do so may present itself.
His roughly 40-minute conference began with Payne reading from a prepared text for 10 minutes during which he discussed the passing of Arnold Palmer, the rerouting of old Berkmans Road, the “development of our western border,” the construction of the new press building and the early blooming of “our normally spectacular azaleas.” He was wearing a bright yellow striped tie, a green jacket and a white button identifying him as a member of “Arnie’s Army.”
Asked to comment of some of the controversies de jour—TV viewers calling in potential rules violations and Donald Trump as the First Golfer, to name two—Payne handled them as the masterful politician he is. He referred the TV question to the man sitting to his right, Fred Ridley, who is the chairman of the competition committee. Regarding Trump, Payne said, “I am not fully aware of anything that our president may have said [that is] controversial about the game of golf.”
In these Wednesday-morning Masters-week sessions, Payne has always spoken as a careful and polished politician and with decided formality. But today, in the new windowless basement auditorium at the back of the driving range, that sense of formality was only heightened. One enters the building as if one is entering a church service.
On a wood-paneled wall to Payne’s right hung an oil portrait of Clifford Roberts and to the left was another of Bobby Jones, the club’s co-founders. (Both are by the artist Thomas E. Stephens.) Between the stage and the auditorium floor was a wide lane, planted with beautiful live azaleas, that will make more difficult post-interview scrums. In the old press building, reporters could get right up to the stage and talk to the golfers in informal give-and-take sessions called scrums, where the best and most interesting revelations took place.
In other places in the club, things are less formal. In the second-floor champions locker room, each Masters winner found a bottle of Ketel One vodka, specially stamped with the words, “This one’s for you, Mr. Palmer.” In the caddie clubhouse, hard by the driving range, caddies and players eat grilled cheeseburgers and talk NCAA basketball. “Under the tree,” a phrase that refers to an expanse of lawn between the back of the clubhouse and the first tee, one could see Nick Faldo, Curtis Strange, John Solheim of Ping, various agents and TV talents chatting away. The press building is one of the most buttoned-down parts of the entire Augusta National campus. In the press conference, some reporters called Payne “Mr. Chairman.” The chairman himself, uncharacteristically, did refer to Masters “badges,” the club’s preferred term, as “tickets.” That may have been a first. More typically, Payne referred to the “patron arrival experience.”
It’s an interesting thing, the relationship between Augusta National and the reporters who cover the Masters. The great Golden Age sportswriter Grantland Rice was a founding member of the club. In the first row of Payne’s press conference sat John Boyette, the sports editor of the Augusta Chronicle, which has devoted hundreds of thousands of column inches over the years to the tournament, often celebrating the greatness of the event. In the back of the auditorium were about 20 Augusta National members, who, far from being figureheads, chair various committees that make the tournament run as seamlessly as it does.
And at center stage, situated in a place where Berckmans Road was located just a year ago before it was rerouted, was the chairman, talking (but not really) about possible changes to the course, the new eligibility to play in the Par-3 tournament (open only to tournament contestants and former winners) and what constitutes a collared shirt. This was one of the more interesting moments of the press conference and we will conclude with the exchange.
A reporter asked if the club has a definition of what constitutes a collar and if some of the modern short-collared shirts fulfill the definition.
“I assume that means we require collared shirts, is that right, is that what you’re telling me?” Payne said.
“Yes,” the reporter said.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that shirt. Whether or not in my personal opinion it would meet that definition, I just don’t know.”
Media consultants will tell you: I don’t know is often a very useful answer.